Emily Dickinson and the Wordless Cry of the Shofar

The Bible does not contain very much information about Rosh Hashanah. Nowhere in the Torah is it described as a day of kingship, a day of judgment, or even a new year. The only information we have about the day is that it is a “yom teruah,” or perhaps, “zikhron teruah,” a day of, or remembrance of, teruah. In the Talmud, teruah is defined as yevavah, as a kind of crying (Rosh Hashanah 33b), but the plain meaning of the Chumash seems to be closer to a day of “sounding.” This sounding does not necessarily imply praise, celebration, or even prayer. Yom Teruah is, most literally, a day of sound.  And from the perspective of the Bible, this sound does not have a specific valence, it does not tell us what to think or what to feel.

When looking at the texts surrounding Rosh Hashanah, particularly the ones we read on the first day, a distinct trope of sound repeats itself over and over again.

When Sarah names her son Isaac, she does so because of a sound – וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה–צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים:  כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי. “God has made laughter for me; whoever hears will laugh for me.” (Genesis 21:6)

When Hagar and Yishmael are banished to the desert– Hagar raises her voice and cries, “וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךּ” (Genesis 21:16) Interestingly, it is actually the crying of Yishmael that summons God to help them, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר.” “God heard the cry of the youth” (Ibid 21:17).

In both of these instances, it is a wordless sound that moves the narrative forward. And though Sarah’s laughter and Yishmael’s cry are very different kinds of sounds, they share one feature: they cannot be summarized in words. It is unclear whether Sarah’s laughter is one of sarcasm or one of joy, and it is unclear what it is about Hagar’s cry that God disregards and how Yishmael’s cry might be different. In the absence of specific prayers, or words, we have powerful but also ambiguous moments of sound.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and the potential ambiguity of sound is highlighted by the Rabbinic tradition in the association of the shofar with the crying of Em Sisera, the mother of an evil general who sought to destroy the Jewish people.  According to Tosafot we sound the shofar 100 times to commemorate the tears of an unsympathetic mother, whose only comfort was to think that perhaps her son was delayed in returning to her because he was busy raping innocent captives. When the Talmud associates the sobbing or yevavah of Sisera’s mother with the cries of the shofar, on some level it doesn’t seem to be bothered by the morally problematic aspects of the association.

Somehow the call of the shofar transcends, or precedes, ethical categories. It is a sound that we bring a complex set of associations to, and yet, it is never quite the same as the meaning we attach to it.

Just as music is something that moves us in distinct ways, yet can never be paraphrased, and can never be precisely expressed by words, the sound of the shofar is similarly impossible to pin down. In the Bible it is a battle cry and accompanies the coronation of kings. In the Talmud it is a sobbing wail. In 1967, when the Temple Mount was in our hands, the shofar was sounded to signify hope and that redemption was approaching. Yet even then, that sound could not be separated from all of the tears and sorrow which made that hope and that promise of redemption possible.

Our tradition attempts to makes sense of this unwieldy mass of sound by ordering it into different segments: malkhiot, shofrot, and zikhronot. And while all of these associations testify to the enduring power of the shofar, they also confirm the impossibility of ever really defining or translating its sound into words.

Emily Dickinson, when talking about God, uses the metaphor of sound to try to describe something that she would otherwise not have the words for. She finishes a well known poem “The Brain is Wider than the Sky,” a testament to the overreaching power of human consciousness, with the verse:

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound

In Dickinson’s radical theology, we can’t separate our own brain from our apprehension of something greater than us. And yet, she suggests that if we are going to separate human consciousness from the notion of an objective God, the best metaphor she can think of is the difference between individual words and sound itself. For Dickinson, we humans are limited and defined by language, but God can be thought of as sound- inseparably linked to, and necessary for, language – but also representing something altogether different.

She begins another poem about religion with the lines:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond —
Invisible, as Music —
But positive, as Sound –

Dickinson struggles to find the right words to describe God, and she settles on the image of sound. Dickinson says that God is like music in the way that He “beckons” and “baffles.” That is, He draws us to Him but ultimately evades our comprehension. And just as sound is something positive and present, God is telling us something— it is just something that we can’t quite put into words.

And when, in Psalm 47, we hear “עָלָה אֱלֹהִים, בִּתְרוּעָה; יְהוָה, בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר.” “God has been raised up in sound; God, in the sound of the shofar,” I think that something similar is being described.

But if God is in the sound of the shofar, what exactly is being said? And if it is not something we can capture in words, if all of our attempts at articulating that cry are doomed to be insufficient, then what is the point of even trying?

Another striking element of this Yom Teruah, day of sound, is how embedded in language it really is. We sound the enduring and untranslatable cry of the shofar during the musaf prayer, in the most loquacious Amidah of the year. The shofar is ultimately something that cannot be captured in words, and yet that is precisely what our tradition does again and again, in halakhic discourse and aggadic lore.

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that there are some things that remain outside the realm of human comprehension, but also, that we nevertheless are required to try and comprehend them. It is interesting that aside from the shofar, one of the most important symbols of the Yamim Noraim is the “book of life,” the sefer ha’chayim. While the shofar makes us cognizant of a realm of pure sound, we live our lives in words. Paradoxically, the very specific, very earthly process of sorting through our sins, and figuring out what kinds of changes to make in our lives, is jumpstarted by a sound that is completely distinct from any kind of moral or spiritual framework. Part of our task here on earth is to translate the untranslatable cry of the shofar, even while we recognize how impossible that is.

Adapted from a dvar Torah delivered at Darchei Noam Congregation, NYC, Rosh Hashanah 5773/2012

4 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson and the Wordless Cry of the Shofar

  1. Tehilla

    Dear Sara,

    Thank you for you words….words that capture the inexplicable sounds that move us. I am going into RH with your exquisite and insightful reflections. Toda & Shana Tova U’Metuka.


  2. david rosenberg

    Sorry to come so belatedly to this lovely dvar torah! I wonder why you didn’t consider that in both ED’s “sound” and that of the ram’s horn, crearion itself is being signified. As created species, both us lingualists and the ram, we are limited in a way that creation/sound is not. That is, the Creator remains unknowable (or in your lovely word, untranslatable) as a parent’s mind to a child (though the child recognizes the parental sound…

    Liked by 1 person

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