October 22, 2019

A new year’s resolution: Emulating the shofar

Can the humble sound of a ram’s horn help unite our community? Can it encourage us to dialogue rather than to fight, to disagree honorably rather than to cut each other out? 

The communal rancor in the age of Donald Trump has been so ugly and intense, I’m not sure anything will help. Rabbis will surely weigh in on this subject with their holiday sermons. How could they not? I can’t recall our community being so divided. Never Trumpers versus always Trumpers versus sometimes Trumpers — the Trumpster hurricane is wreaking communal havoc.

What is behind this human rancor? In part, I call it the curse of being right. Something happens to people when they’re sure they have the whole truth on their side. They get on such a high horse they can’t see anything below. More than that, they refuse to see anything below.

I’ve seen family relationships break up over Trump. Why? Because we have become our ideology. More specifically, our political ideology. We have convinced ourselves that this is life or death, that we must all unite behind the same beliefs or a catastrophe will happen.

With that mindset, no civil dialogue is possible. If someone is not with you, they are worthy of contempt, or at least utter dismissal.

We have crossed the line from disagreement into rejection. It’s not just that I disagree with you, it’s that I am disgusted by your position. So disgusted that I am rejecting you.

When emotions are so raw, words can only go so far. To shake us up, we also need something transcendent, something nonverbal. That’s why I’m hoping that this year, the shofar will come to the rescue.

As we pray during the High Holy Days, we all will be hearing the same four sounds of the shofar: tekiah — one long blast; shevarim — three medium blasts; teruah — nine short staccato sounds; and tekiah gedolah — one extra-long blast.

I’d like to suggest that hidden in those four sounds is symbolic hope for communal healing.

Tekiah — the long blast — symbolizes the taking of a long breath before we speak. When we take that breath, we’re less likely to allow our anger to get the better of us, to say something that may irreparably damage a relationship.

Shevarim — three medium blasts — symbolizes the back and forth of a civil dialogue. Even if we are certain of our views, it behooves us to hear other views. Not because they will change our minds, but because hearing other views is an act of decency.

Teruah — nine short sounds — symbolizes sharp arguments. We can take on  each other, we can be passionate about our positions, but we don’t need to go as far as cutting people out of our lives, especially people we care about. Even, yes, if we are disgusted by their views.

On our deathbeds, will we think: I’m glad I stopped talking to this person who I care about because they said something good about Trump?

Tekiah gedolah — the extra-long blast — is, for me, the most meaningful sound. It symbolizes the long game. Why are we here? Why are we alive? What will we be thinking during the last few minutes of our lives?

Imagine, for example, that you are a liberal who is repulsed by Trump. You think he’s the worst thing that ever happened to America. You think he’s a racist and a bigot. You dream of his impeachment.

Now, you have a longtime friend or a relative who voted for Trump. Every time you see this person, it reminds you of their politics and it turns your stomach. Over time, it gets harder and harder to be in that person’s company.

Tekiah gedolah comes to remind us of the long game. We all are going to die, some of us sooner than others. On our deathbeds, will we think: I’m glad I stopped talking to this person who I care about because they said something good about Trump?

This is what turns my stomach: The notion that we can give politics the power to contaminate our relationships.

I have a friend who took me on in a nasty way recently over a political issue. Her Facebook comment shook me up because I adore this person. Not sure how to respond, I sent her this private message: “I am incapable of having any negative feelings for you. I’m trying, but I can’t.”

This is not kumbaya. This is a hard-nosed refusal to let ideology destroy a relationship.

So, here’s my suggestion: When we hear the four sounds of the shofar this year, let’s meditate on how those humble sounds can heal us. Let’s learn to express our views with passion but also with humility.

If the great Moses could do it, so could we.

Happy, sweet and peaceful new year.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.