A Rosh Hashana Sermon 5772
Rabbi Nissan Antine
It was a few days before Rosh Hashanah 1943 in Bergen Belsen. Wolf Fischelberg was walking back to his barracks and just over the barbed wire fence there was a block of “privileged Jews” with coveted foreign passports. All of the sudden, out of the corner of his eye, Wolf sees a rock flying towards him from the privileged block. It nearly hits his head and then lands right at his feet. He notices that the rock has a note tied to it. He looks both ways to make sure nobody is looking and he picks up the note and slides it into his pocket.
Later that evening, in a corner, at a distance from the others, Wolf read the note. It was written in Hebrew by a Dutch Jew named Hayyim Borack. Hayyim wrote that he was fortunate to have obtained a shofar and if the Hasidic Jews from the Polish transports wished to use the shofar for Rosh Hashanah services, Borack could smuggle the shofar in one of the coffee cauldrons of the morning distribution. In doing so they would lose the cauldron of coffee, for the shofar would be covered with a minimal amount of coffee, just enough to conceal it.
A vote was taken among the Polish Jews. Those in favor of the plan to smuggle in the shofar held a clear majority. They all agreed to give up their morning coffee ration on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The smuggling of the shofar was a success. Nobody was caught and the shofar was not damaged. But now a new problem arose. In order to fulfill the mitzvah, the obligation of shofar blowing, all present must clearly hear the voice of the shofar. The risk was great. If the sounds of the shofar reached the German ears, all present would pay with their lives.
The following question then arose in the Barracks: Would it be permissible to intentionally muffle the sound of the shofar so that it would not be heard by a passing Nazi? (Story from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust)
I promise you that I will get back to this question but I first would like to take a look at a seemingly unrelated passage.
If you look at the U’netaneh Tokef (478- second line) - ובשופר גדול יתקע וקול דממה דקה ישמע
“He will blow the Great Shofar; And a small thin voice will be heard”
Question: If it is a great shofar? why the small thin voice?
Answer: I think we can answer this by looking at two events that took place at Mount Sinai. The first event was Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. There was thunder and lightning and a shofar blast which was holech v’chazak meod (it got stronger the longer it lasted). This is the shofar gadol. Awesome. Powerful. Extraordinary.
But then we turn to the next event that occurred at Mount Sinai. About 400 years later, Elijah the prophet was hiding in desert מדבר. An angel then tells him to walk for 40 days and 40 nights and he arrives at Mount Sinai. All of the sudden, there is a רוח גדולה מפרק הרים (a powerful wind that shatters mountains) - But the angel says - “Hashem is not in the wind:” (לא ברוח ה’). Then there is an earthquake. But the “Hashem is not in the earthquake”. Then then a fire. But the Angel says -Hashem is not in the fire. After the fire there is a still, thin sound (Kol Demama Dakah).
Elijah is being taught that if you want to look for Hashem, don't look in the spectacular, in the amazing, in the extraordinary. If you want to find Hashem, you have to listen to the still thin sound of the mundane day in and day out reality, you have to look for Hashem in the ordinary.
We call this Halakha. The Definition of Halakha - Our attempt to encounter/hear G-d in the seemingly boring details of everyday life. Our attempt to make the ordinary, holy.
Which one lasts longer? The Shofar Gadol lasts for 40 days (40 days after revelation at Mount Sinai they committed sin of the golden calf). The Kol Demama daka lasts forever.
Let me give a few examples.
A boy or a girl has a bar or bat mitzvah. It is amazing. Everyone is in shul. The child does so well. The child is so inspired in his or her judaism. This is the Shofar Gadol (The great shofar).
But the real challenge is, what happens tomorrow and the next day. Does the child take the inspiration of the Bar Mitzvah and look for G-d daily throughout the teenage years and into college. This is the real challenge. This is the Kol Demama Dakah.
A couple gets married. So beautiful. So inspiring. Every couple wants to get every Jewish detail right for the wedding. This is the shofar gadol. But what happens the day after. There are so many halakhot that pertain to married life (laws of family purity, laws of setting up home, laws of raising children. How committed are we at that point. This is the Kol Demama Daka.
Today is Rosh Hashana. Everyone is here! The davening is beautiful so inspiring. Everyone is thinking about their lives and praying for a good year. This is the Shofar Gadol. The question is who shows up on a random Thursday in November? Who takes five minutes out of their lunch break to daven mincha. Who remembers to Bentch (Grace after meals) when we are just by ourselves. It is quiet. Nobody is watching. This is the Kol Demama Daka.
I recently taught a class on the Laws of Shabbat. I have to say, I was nervous. Would anyone be interested in learning about all of the seemingly boring details. I was so moved by your response. Everyone wanted more and more detail. Everyone was thirsty to learn subtle distinctions between between cooking and reheating, liquid food and solid food, ovens vs. hot plates vs. warming ovens vs. blechs, 105 vs. 110 degrees, shehiya and chazara.
This is beautiful. This is how we turn the ordinary into the holy. This is how we listen for G-d in the Kol Demama Daka.
Now for the controversial part (there always has to be something controversial!). Many in this room are so worried about our children. How will they turn out. Will they be observant. Will they be committed and passionate jews. Will they intermarry?
So what do we do? We spend thousands of dollars (perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars) on Day School, Israel trips, holocaust trips, summer experiences and Birthrights so they will have that moment of amazing inspiration that will bind them to Judaism forever. - we are trying to give our children the shofar gadol. This is beautiful but We also need to give them kol demama daka.
We need to give them the boring everyday judaism. The Shabbat, the Kashrut, the consistency of davening and Torah study.
We, our Jewish community, is excellent at creating “Extraordinary Judaism.” But are we good enough at doing “Ordinary Judaism”? I have a harsh observation. If we do not do better (all of us regardless of our current level of observance) at “Ordinary Judaism” then the hundreds of thousands of dollars that we spend on “Extraordinary Judaism” is one big waste of money. The shofar gadol is important to recharge our batteries, to give us great moments of inspiration. But we also need the Kol Demama Daka and without it, the shofar gadol is meaningless.
Now I would like to return to Bergen Belsen. Was it permitted to intentionally muffle the sound of that shofar blast? Well based on the lesson of the Kol Demama Daka, it would seem that it might even be spiritually preferable to to have a muffled silent sound then to have the poweful shofar Gadol blast.
However, spiritual intuitions are not sufficient. We must consult the Halakha.
And this is precisely what happened in Bergen Belsen. “A heated debate developed among the scholars and rabbis” in the barracks on this topic.”
While the halakhic arguments are not recorded in the story, I can imagine that the following source might have been quoted.
Mishna Rosh Hashana 3:7 "If someone blows a Shofar into a pit, cistern or barrel, then he is Yotze if he hears the sound of the Shofar, but not if he hears the echo"
Why would someone blow a shofar into a pit or a barrel? Is this just an example of the rabbis sitting around and discussing crazy hypothetical cases for their intellectual enjoyment.
Meiri (quoting Rav Shrira Goen) - This was a very real and practical question. This mishnah was composed during the Hadrianic Persecutions (Post Bar Kochba in 135). Sounding the shofar was illegal and if a Roman overheard the shofar blast, Jews could be put to death. They therefore wanted to know if they could blow the shofar into a pit or a barrel to muffle the sound.
The answer was, if you hear the echo, you do not fulfill the mitzvah. But if you hear the shofar (no matter how muffled) you fulfill the mitzvah. Shulchan Aruch - כל הקולות כשרות (All sounds are kosher no matter how loud or how soft).
The rabbis and the scholars in Bergen Belsen must have discussed these sources and then a decision was reached to blow the shofar quietly. God would surely accept the muffled sounds of the shofar...thought Wolf Fischelberg as he was about to blow the shofar.
As little Miriam, Wolf’s daughter, listened to the shofar, she hoped that it would bring down the barbed-wire fences of Bergen Belsen just as the blasts of the shofar had in earlier times made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Then the service was over.
Nothing had changed. The barbed wires remained fixed in their places.Only in the heart did something stir – knowledge and hope; knowledge that the muffled voice of a shofar had made a dent in the Nazi wall of humiliation and slavery, and hope that someday freedom would bring down the barbed-wire fences of Bergen Belsen and of humanity.
I believe that the hope came from the fact that no matter what was going on in the Concentration Camp, they still listened for the Kol Demama Daka, the muffled sound of the shofar. Their focus until the end was on the Halakha and how it could sanctify very difficult and seemingly very unholy moments of life.
And Miriam’s hope came to fruition less then two years later in May of 1945. While Miriam and her family were traveling on a Death Train through the German countryside, their train was liberated by the US army.
I hope that this year, 5752, we can hear both sounds of the shofar. The shofar Gadol which provides those amazing moments of inspiration and deep connection. But then also the Kol Demama Daka, which we have to listen very carefully for and sanctify the other 99% of seemingly ordinary times in our lives. It is the kol Demama Daka which ultimately will have a deeper impact on ourselves and on our children.
And as we try to do our part and listen for Hashem’s voice, May Hashem listen to our voice as well and grant us a year of prosperity, health and fulfillment of our deepest prayers.
Reposted with permission of author from http://nissanantine.blogspot.com/2011/10/rosh-hashana-sermon-5772-silent-shofar.html.