Rosh HaShannah: The Blast of Your Little Voice

By: Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann

We learn from the parts of the story we focus on. We learn from the parts of the story we tell over and over again.  – Hannah Gadsby

Both of the stories we read this morning feature the stories of, and particularly the VOICES, of women. Actually fairly rare in the Torah to have narratives driven by women, and the tradition puts in front of us today two different stories of Kol Isha– the voice of women– being exactly what men need to hear, and even more, what God wants to hear. Knowing that the rabbis who put these readings in front of us were men, operating out of a patriarchal culture, in which women did not drive history, in which women’s voices generally didn’t get recorded… this is a radical move.

And I think they make this radical move because they know: that the truth that we so often need to hear, comes from the voices on the margins. The softer voices, the voices who aren’t in the spotlight or in the mainstream. The voices who aren’t vying for your attention, tweeting at all hours of the day and night in all-caps. Voices that we may not encounter unless we’re listening for them.

In our Torah reading, Abraham has created something of a situation… he impregnated his servant, Hagar, an immigrant woman who’s name literally means “the stranger,” and once his wife Sarah also a kid, Sarah expresses her discomfort with this poly-amorous mishpucha situation… God says to Abraham, Sarah’s letting you know she’s distressed, “Shma b’kolah – listen to her voice. (You should recognize a word in there “Shema” – we say it 2x a day – LISTEN.)

And a few verses later– interestingly, the camera follows Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, as they leave Abraham and Sarah’s house. When Hagar calls out from the wilderness, “V’yishma Adonai Et Kol ha’Na’ar” – God listened to the voice…” in this case, of the boy… Ishmael, this mixed race son with even less status than she has, both refugees from the place they called home for over a decade. God hears their voice.

And then of course there’s Hannah, whose story we just heard… do NOT take for granted that hers is the story we read…the action in the Temple in Jerusalem was the action at the altar, where men in fancy priestly garb would sprinkle blood on sacrifices and propitiate God for rain or forgiveness or for victory in battle. The action was decidedly not women who came in and stood on the side and prayed with words… The camera just picks up and moves from the priests to this woman muttering to herself in the corner, defying convention by praying with words, no animal sacrifices… and even though she’s first met with skepticism, ultimately Eli the high priest blesses her, and recognizes her voice is expressing a needed truth.

And the truth was not just that the lottery of who gets to get pregnant – and who can’t – is cruel and unfair. The bigger truth was that the religious structure of JUDAISM was not designed to serve certain people, in fact the majority of people, at that point. It wasn’t designed to serve the spiritual needs of anyone who wasn’t a priest. Maybe it did at one point in history but it wasn’t working anymore, not for most people, certainly not for women. And when one such person had the holy chutzpah to approach, to speak up, and made that clear… she changed the freaking world.  The rabbis in the talmud spend pages talking about how much we learn from Chana about how to prayer, and one of those things is that we’re obligated to “hurl our words at heaven” – heti’akh d’varim k’lapei maalah– when we have legitimate beef with the lot we’ve been dealt. We’re not just allowed to do that, that’s what God wants from us. God wants our holy dissatisfaction. It’s what changes the world.

There are SO many stories in the Torah NOT about marginal voices… that the spiritual architects of our tradition wanted us to hear THESE stories today says something about the kind of story-tellers and listeners they’re hoping we become. Voices that expose the unfairness and hypocrisy in a society that may be working very well for many people… but still has work to do before truly honoring all peoples in it.

Hagar was not the only non-Jew to bear a child for a Jew, to be mistreated by a Jew. Hannah, not the only woman to struggle with fertility, to be shamed, to have a Jewish authority figure shoot her down in public, and to bounce back with resilience and courage. We need to hear these stories.

Exactly this time last year, in October, the New York Times ran a story about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The actress Ashley Judd, quoted in the piece, said “Women have been talking about this privately for a long time. It’s time to speak publicly.”

Almost immediately, dozens of women came forward to speak about their similar experiences of harassment, unwanted sexual advances and even rape. Within a month Weinstein’s membership from every producer’s and industry guild had been severed, by overwhelming majorities of their Boards, and the Board of his own company fired him.

The thing about it is, we knew!! Not just in Hollywood but EVERYWHERE: that sexual violence is real, is traumatic, and is widespread. It’s not like we didn’t know before October of last year that 1 in 6 women in any given room has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and many more, subject to sexual harassment at some point in their lives. And it’s not like people all over Hollywood didn’t know that Harvey Weinstein was an outright sexual predator. For years. They made jokes about it on 30Rock and and late night talk shows. So how do we understand this overwhelming tidal wave of responses – the public firings, the resignations, the public shaming, when we knew this was going on?

And I think the answer is, precisely, that WE KNEW, and we didn’t do anything, for YEARS. People in Hollywood knew for a long time, but they knew like you know a truth, deep down, that you don’t want to hear.  A kol d’mama daka, a still small persistent voice– a voice speaking an inconvenient truth, that you do everything to not listen to.

And why… why are we so hesitant to listen? Isn’t it good for us, shining a light on things we need to see as a society?

Rebbe Nachman, a Chassidic master, says, “Ben Adam Olam Katan hu/a person is a microcosm of society.” Anything true about us as individuals is even more true when we start acting as a corporate body. How many of you like it when someone well-meaning offers feedback about something about you that’s less than flattering? As individuals we’re resistant to change and embarrassment… our culture is resistant to change and acknowledging our many shortcomings.  In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it would have meant disrupting business as usual, money lost, projects that people invested a lot of time and resources in, thwarted… it would have meant woman being even more vulnerable to scrutiny and doubt. But by not listening for all those years, then when it finally can’t be avoided anymore, the response can no longer be incremental, and is instead like a tidal wave, far more disruptive and overwhelming than had we listened to those pesky inconvenient voices speaking truth, a long time ago.

Listening to the voices on the margins is not good for status quo. Business as usual has to adapt, evolve, sometimes be completely upended when those voices are finally heard. And you might think, YES, that’s what revolution looks like.  THAT’s what it looks like when the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice… the voices that had been on the margins are now part of the center.

Now of course as the margins move into the center, new margins emerge, and until the messiah comes, there will always be those whose needs are not being met by the mainstream, who aren’t being recognized, honored, given full dignity as people. Our rabbis are telling us: hey Jews, be the people listening for those voices. Not just when it’s you that’s the oppressed minority, but particularly when you’re not the oppressed minority – when you’re strong, when you’re powerful, when you have influence.  Because you’ve been there, you know what it’s like. Listening for, and advocating for those voices, is what it means to be a Jew.

Now this phenomenon… this tendency not to listen to the kol dmama dakah is also something that happens inside of each one of us.

Think about your own chorus of inner voices. The voice inside of us telling us we need a career change, to take our health more seriously, to get out of the dysfunctional relationship that has been holding both of us back.

But he makes such good money. But she comes from such a great family, but they’re JEWISH! But we have kids, but how will our families take it? But what else could I do with my life?  But I’m too old to do something new…

And so we live with a low-grade white noise that we’ve trained ourselves to turn on every time that voice speaks. We do something else, we distract ourselves, we shop, eat, fight, we have promiscuous sex, surf facebook, we do anything but listen.

And often it’s some kind of tragedy, a brush with death for ourselves or a loved one, that forces that white noise machine silent, and we can hear the truth of our lives loud and clear. We know what we need to do. And it can be scary, and uncertain, but what is certain is that if you don’t listen to that voice, you’ll never know who you might have become, what life you might have lived.

I sent ya’ll an email before the holiday, asked: What is a truth that you know, that you aren’t listening to? What would it take to hear it?

Here are some of the things you said, “It’s not necessary to make six figures to be happy.”

“My ex was right to break up with me–we were truly unhappy–and it’s time to let it go.”

“Working out/going to the gym is absolutely worth it.”

“That the affair I’m having is wrong. I honestly don’t know what will help me break myself out of this. It’s so fun. And dangerous.”

You have everything you need. You don’t have to shop for more. The desire to shop may speak to an empty place inside, and acquiring more goods is not going to fill it. It never has. At some point there has to be a recognition of enough. Will thinking it and writing it make me feel it?

I wonder what of these you may relate to…

My good friend suffered with chronic fatigue … years of seeing specialists, no diagnosis, no cure. One day she heard a voice saying within her, “If you stay in your marriage, you will die.”

Well, the body often acts as the megaphone for that kol d’mama daka trying desperately to get our attention. If we’re lucky, we hear it before something terrible happens to us, or before we do something really stupid. Now did she KNOW that leaving her 30 year marriage would cure the fatigue? No, she didn’t. It was a risk. But she did know that if she didn’t listen to that voice, she would die inside – slowly. So it was worth the risk, because she wanted to live. And in her case it turned out, divorce cured the disease.

Listening to that kol dm’ama daka, that small voice calling out from the margins, even of our own consciousness, is risky, can upend the status quo of life… but worth it.

And I feel like I need to be clear here: not every idea your inner voice has is a good one. Your inner voice may be telling to do something really destructive, to yourself, or other people. That’s why the instruction, from the character of God speaking to Abraham in the Torah, or  even with the sound of the shofar… the first thing, is just to hear. To hear, to listen, to sit with, to breathe in, to come to understand. It’s not to spring immediately into action.

We are about to hear the sound of the Shofar. The specific mitzvah, obligation, of the Shofar is not to play it, but to HEAR IT, as you’ll see with our blessing lishmo’ah KOL Shofar.

What is the sound of the Shofar? Some say it’s a battle cry, a call to arms, to action – in the ancient world it was blasted to convene the army! Others insist it’s moaning, it’s pain, sobbing, wailing. The Book of Judges describes the mother of an enemy general named Sisera standing at the window awaiting her son, who has gone to battle against the Israelites, distraught at his delay, and she begins to fear the worst. The rabbis say the sound of the shofar is HER CRYING for her son– the aching, repetitive sobs of a woman who has lost her child.

Think about what it means to open ourselves to hear the voices of the people we feel threatened by, to humanize an enemy by thinking about their mothers who cared for them as babies, who love them, who will stand at the window and mourn them when they don’t come home? What would it mean, for those of us who feel strong and powerful in our lives, to turn our ears to listen for the voices of those saying things we might not want to hear… inconvenient truths that challenge our own sense of stablity, the accepted norms of our people?

Lishmo’ah KOL shofar – to HEAR the VOICE of the Shofar.

No immediate imperative to act… first just the imperative to hear. If we can stand there, bear the dissonance, the inner resistance, and just listen, we are training ourselves to crack open, to allow for possibility of change, within ourselves and the world.

Yehi Ratson Milfaneicha Eloheinu v’Elohei Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – may it be Your will, our God and God of our Ancestors, that we can open ourselves to really hear the voices, the opinions, the people, the parts of ourselves, that we find most challenging, that we’re most resistant to hearing. May we listen resiliently, and may we have the courage to allow those voice to shape us, to expand the center and create more safety and more space for more people. May we do what Jews have always done: listen for the voices calling out from the margins and be able to answer them by saying “Hineni, here I am. Here we are.”