Rabbi Josh Weisman's Rosh Hashanah Devar Torah

Last night I talked about our broken hearts. I spoke about the way our heart breaks reading the news each day, about the way it breaks for all the ways we ourselves make missteps, modest as they may be. And I spoke about the holiness of a broken heart – as the tradition says, “God is close to the broken hearted” – about the vitality and love that a broken heart holds, and about the way that a broken heart can lead first to teshuvah and then to tikkun olam.

Last night I talked about our broken hearts. I spoke about the way our heart breaks reading the news each day, about the way it breaks for all the ways we ourselves make missteps, modest as they may be. And I spoke about the holiness of a broken heart – as the tradition says, “God is close to the broken hearted” – about the vitality and love that a broken heart holds, and about the way that a broken heart can lead first to teshuvah and then to tikkun olam.

I want to get a little more specific today, and offer just a couple of possible answers to questions you might be asking – how does this work? and what could we do with it?

The first step, I believe, is recognize the signals and calls of a broken heart. I think those calls are all around us all the time, and on the High Holidays our tradition provides us with even more signals and calls.

One of those calls is the Shofar. How so? The shofar is meant to wake us up, and of course one of the things it’s supposed to wake us up to is our own mistakes, which in turn, as I mentioned last night, are assumed to produce a broken heart. So Shofar wakes us up to our broken hearts. It is fair to say that, in part, shofar is the sound of a broken heart.

Shofar is also associated with crying. Unbelievable as it may be, our tradition derives one of the Shofar calls from the crying of a mother, a mother waiting for son’s return from battle. And not just any mother of a warrior, but the mother of Sisera, a Canaanite army commander whose army of fearsome iron chariots oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. When Deborah and Barak finally get the Israelites together to try to throw off Sisera’s oppression, they crush Sisera’s army and send him fleeing. He is then famously killed by Yael. But before word reaches his mother, the Bible depicts a truly heart-breaking scene of his mother crying for him as she stands at her window anxiously awaiting his return. The word for crying used in this scene is interpreted by Jewish tradition as being the origin of the Shofar sound we call Shevarim – literally, “breaks,” a form of the very same word we use for broken heart, for that broken heart that the Bible also says God is closest to. The other kinds of shofar blasts – teruahand tekiah– are each mentioned by name in the Bible as types of shofar blasts. But shevarim is never mentioned. Without this interpretation of the sound of our enemy’s mother’s crying, we would not have the shevarimblasts.

There are other resonances between shofar and crying mothers in our tradition. Midrash portrays Sarah’s reaction to hearing of Avraham’s near-sacrifice of their son Isaac – the story we read on the 2ndday of Rosh HaShanah – as a series of cries that are just like the shofar blasts.

And there are new resonances every year: This year I can’t help but think of Tahlequah, J35, carrying her dead calf. Is the shofar blast also perhaps her cry?

More than that, Shofar is associated with childbirth. We sound the shofar 100 times on RH precisely because of a Midrash that says that a person cries 100 times during childbirth. This is more of a mixed kind of cry, of course – it’s pain, but it’s a prelude to joy. But no one said crying is always bad. So once again, Shofar is associated with crying.

In fact, both of our Haftarah readings for Rosh HaShanah – Haftarot that are traditionally read right beforethe Shofar blasts – reference tears: RH Day 1 is about Channah’s tearful prayer because of her infertility; RH Day 2 references Rachel weeping for her children as well as throngs of pregnant women and women in labor weeping. And today’s reading describes Hagar crying for her son.

Over and over again our tradition draws the connection between shofar and crying. So Shofar is also the sound of crying, or the sound of tears.

And tears, of course, are another signal of a broken heart. And just like a broken heart, our tradition teaches that tears unlock a gate – in this case, the gates of prayer. No matter how locked those gates may seem, tradition teaches that tears unlock them and allow connection.

To connect with our broken hearts and all the love and potential for change that they hold, we can follow the call of the shofar, and we can follow our tears.

What brings you to tears? For each of us, our threshold is different. Some of us may cry only at a funeral – and perhaps only for someone we were very, very close to – while others cry at a good TV commercial. But for each of us there is something.

For everyone it’s different.

And at the same time, there is one thing that I think has brought us all to tears or close to it – one thing that has certainly broken many, many hearts, whether there are tears or not – and that is the separation of immigrant families by our government.

Let’s listen to those tears with as much attention as we listen to the shofar.

What is the sound of these tears? What do they tell us?

I think this too is different for each of us…

And at the same time, I’ll hazard a few generalizations.

In this case of the separated families, I think our tears tell us that we love the children in our lives – our children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, students, the children we and our siblings once were. And they tell us that we have made the critical step of understanding that the love we feel for the children in our lives is the exact same love that people feel for the children in their lives the world over.

Our tears also tell us that we do, in fact, care deeply about the stranger in our midst, the immigrant, the refugee. For some mix of reasons related to the Passover story, Jewish values going back to the Torah, Jewish history, and family histories, we care a great, great deal about today’s immigrants.

Our tears also tell us that even if we do not share language, religion, or nationality with people, we are able to empathize with them. Note that Hagar and Sisera are the other – the proximate other and the distant other – yet we learn about Shofar and tears from their pain. I’m not creating a direct equivalency between Hagar and Sisera’s mother, on the one hand, and the immigrants whose families are being separated at our borders, on the other. (Of the two, Hagar is certainly the closer example, but it’s a complicated story and not a direct parallel.) But our tradition often teaches lessons by extreme examples. If we identify with the pain of Sisera’s mother – the mother of our worst enemy – how much more so should we identify with the pain of the immigrants who may be different from us but for whom we hold no animus.

And finally, I think our tears tell us that we have a need to do something about this. Many of you have already done something to express your heart-break at the separation of these families and the whole complex of heartless anti-immigrant policies surrounding this one most heart-breaking policy. And many of us have tried to figure out what we can do and have been frustrated.

It’s crucial that we keep trying.

Tears are powerful. They work in many directions. Our tears can move us, but so can others. A recording of a young child sobbing in a detention center as he was separated from his mother catalyzed an enormous shift in this whole saga and may have been a determinative factor in ending the official policy. Don’t underestimate the power of tears. Let us listen to them – our own, and others’.

A couple of local meditation teachers – Joel and Michelle Levey – recently taught me about something called empathy fatigue. Compassion fatigue, they said, is a misnomer. Empathy is feeling for another’s suffering, while compassion implies action – call it compassionate action. And empathy fatigue – getting overloaded by just feelingfor others’ suffering – is a real problem, they said. Just feeling and feeling and feeling for all the suffering around us can really overwhelm our systems and can lead us to shut down. This is where compassionate action comes in. When we take our empathy – our broken hearts and their tears – and act to relieve suffering, our whole systems change. Our circuits stop being overloaded. A whole new set of pathways in our minds and hearts are activated and the overwhelm stops. Compassionate action is the antidote to empathy fatigue.

So, as we listen to the cry of the Shofar in all its valences, including the tears encoded in it, as we read of Sarah and Hagar’s heart-breaking dynamic and Hagar’s tears for Yishmael, as we connect on these High Holidays with our own heart-break at the state of the world, the newspaper’s headlines, family separation, and even our own modest failings, let us connect with our broken hearts for the sake of compassionate action, and let us be moved and inspired to relieve suffering.