One of the midrashim that seeks to explain the origins of the different calls on the Shofar that we sound out each Rosh Hashanah has had the most impact on my understanding of teshuvah and the call to action signified by the Shofar blasts. It tells us that the shofar calls were modeled on the sound of Sisera's mother, wailing while she waited at the window for his return from battle.
Who was Sisera and who was his mother?
In the story of Devorah, the Judge, Sisera is the enemy. He is the General that Devorah and her army general, Barak, are out to defeat. There is a poignant line toward the end of the story, when we are told that Sisera's mother waits at her window for his return. It is poignant because we, the reader, know that he has been defeated and has fled. But his end is gruesome. A woman, Yael, encourages him to rest in her tent. She feeds him and gives him drink and, when he is asleep, she cuts off his head.
'Hurrah! The enemy is defeated!' might be our response. But then we find a rabbinic midrash that suggests that the sounds of the Shofar, that most emblematic of sounds for the High Holydays, remind us of the cries of Sisera's mother.
In the midst of our season of return, when we are seeking forgiveness, when we are asked to find it in our hearts to forgive others, we struggle with our desire for justice in our world and the world's need for compassion. That, after all, is the moral of the story of Jonah that we read on Yom Kippur. If we are all Jonahs then cities will be destroyed and who could stand in judgment? But if we are in the image of God, we respond with compassion, particularly when we see remorse in the words or actions of another.
The sound of the Shofar reminds us that even those that we regard as our enemies... even those who we regard as evil and have committed the worst atrocities - they have a mother. And that mother cries out in sorrow when harm comes to them.
Framing our world in this way, I have found myself able to be less angry at wrong-doing in the world, and, instead, feel the emotions of deep sadness. It doesn't make me any less desiring to act in ways that might help make this world a little better. But instead of running in with sword unleashed, angrily battling the world of injustice, the sound of the Shofar asks me to see the world with greater empathy. It calls me to unleash a little more love and compassion in the ways that I seek to make a difference.
And I can thank Sisera's mother for reminding me of these valuable lessons.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz