By Beth Kissileff
Our sages teach us that “kol hatchalot kashot,” all beginnings are difficult.
This phrase feels especially resonant this Rosh Hashanah.
The man who blew the shofar last year at my Pittsburgh synagogue, New Light, is not here to blow it now. He was murdered on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue, where the New Light and Dor Hadash congregations rented space.
The sounds of the shofar, which Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of blowing in synagogue the entire month of Elul, have a different resonance to me now. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that “the Torah commanded us to make a sound similar to wailing” when we blow it.
That won’t be hard; there is plenty to wail about this year.
The Sefer Hachinuch adds, “Since a person is physical, he is only aroused by something that arouses, like the way of people during wartime [to] blow and even scream in order that they should be properly aroused for war … and the voice of the shofar arouses the heart of all its listeners … when he hears the broken sounds, he breaks the evil inclination of his heart for the desires of the world and his cravings.”
We need to hear this wailing, and be induced to wail ourselves, so that we can change.
The Talmud associates these sounds with the wailing of a bereaved mother of an enemy general. In Judges 5:28, the mother of Sisera wails that her son has not yet returned from battle, nor returned with any captive women or spoils.
It is hard to know how to interpret this. Even though Sisera’s mother is awful in glorifying her murderous son, she is still a mother and still has compassion for her son — it is that human piece of her we are told to identify with. Perhaps Sisera’s mother is wailing out of sheer human instinct. Her wailing is a sign that she knows that her son will never return, though her words, possibly spoken out of false bravado, suggest otherwise.
The guttural scream of someone trying to comprehend that life will be lived without a loved one is sheer terror. I hope never to hear it again. I have been with families at the moment they received official notification from the FBI of their loved one’s deaths. Though they knew in their hearts that their loved one was gone when they did not hear from them hours before, the moment of irrevocable understanding that they will never see their loved one again is a dreadful one.
But sometimes the deepest pain can also bring healing.
The concept of post-traumatic growth is a psychological theory about transformation after trauma. It shows that people who undergo significant trauma can emerge from the experience with an improved appreciation for life, relationships with others, personal strength and spiritual growth. This does not remove the many challenges and anxieties connected to coping with trauma, but adds that growth is possible, too.
When we hear the shofar, if we hear it as a wail and scream, perhaps we can change our lives and make what comes after Rosh Hashanah irrevocably different from what comes before.
I have seen it happen in my own community. People have changed over the course of the year. Some have made and kept commitments to attend synagogue more regularly. Some of our new haftarah chanters have not used the skill since Bar Mitzvah, if ever, but are committed to reading every few weeks in honor of our three devoted haftarah readers at New Light — Dan Stein, Rich Gottfried and Mel Wax — who are no longer able to chant the prophetic words. There are those who did not have much interest in the spiritual side of Judaism who now attend any classes we hold. People who have always wanted to learn Hebrew have been studying it for the first time.
This Rosh Hashanah, all American Jews, shocked to our core at the resurgence of violent anti-Semitism here — a country to which our ancestors immigrated as a haven from such things in the rest of the world — will hear the shofar as a wail and scream. We have undergone the deeply painful trauma of knowing that in Pittsburgh and Poway, Jews have been murdered solely because they are Jews.
However, this deep trauma we have experienced also means we can and need to think about how as a community we can attempt to work through the trauma to achieve meaningful growth.
It is not uncomplicated, but Rosh Hashanah is coming, and we all have the opportunity to begin again — however difficult.
Beth Kissileff is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, survived the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building last year.