Second Day Rosh Hashanah – Sarah’s Cries

The sound of the Shofar give me goosebumps – rooting me in the season and reminding me of the wake up call I need. It is one of the highlights of the High Holy days for me.

Nearly 20 years ago I was told a beautiful midrash about the origins of the cries of the shofar, which I later learnt appears, in typical Jewish fashion, in slightly different forms in different places.

In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (20:2) Isaac comes home after the rather shocking events of the Akeidah that we read this morning – where he saw his father willing to sacrifice him to his God. His mother, Sarah, is curious about where he’s been and what he’s been up to. He tells her what has happened and the journey his father took him on. She is not very impressed! She declares: ‘Woe is me! If it were not for the angel, you would already be slaughtered?’ and he answered, ‘Yes.’ At that, the Midrash tells us, ‘she screamed six times, corresponding to the six teki’ah notes, and before she could finish, she died.’

A later Midrash, Pirke de-Rebbe Eliezer (chapter 32), tells it differently. This time, it is Satan – the adversary (rather than the scary ruler of hell in Christian tradition) who comes to Sarah, and with malicious intent says, ‘Do you know what that husband of yours has done? He has taken young Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy wept and wailed but could not be saved.’ ‘Sarah at once began to weep and wail herself– three cries corresponding to the three teki’ah notes, and three wails corresponding to the three sobbing notes (the teru’ah), then her soul flew off and she died.’


Perhaps the later Pirke de-Rebbe Eliezer couldn’t understand why Sarah had died when Isaac was clearly alive in front of her. In the later version, she believes she has actually lost her son. So what is it that causes Sarah’s Shofar-like wailing in Leviticus Rabbah? Could it be that for the earlier midrash, it isn’t Isaac she has lost, but Abraham. The very idea that her husband was prepared to do such a thing took away her sense of who he was, and perhaps of any goodness in the world at all.

If Sarah’s cries echo the call of the Shofar, the Shofar contains within it the wailing of a heartbroken mother… a sound we have heard too much of over the last year. The high holydays draw us home and together unlike almost any other time, and if we allow them, they can connect us to the most visceral experiences, whether of joy or of pain. They allow us to connect to ourselves, and to those parts of ourselves we perhaps don’t always allow to rise to the surface; whether it is the sins we wish to forget, or the wailing grief we must put aside in order to function day to day. The shofar, according to Maimonides is a wake up call, asking us to examine our behaviour. According to our mother Sarah, it is the voice of grief, crying out to be heard. We sit at the dawn of a new year, hopeful once again for what it may bring us. But we do not deny the reality of where we have been and what we are carrying right now.

Our tradition doesn’t ask us to leave ourselves at the door, but as we read and turn torah from year to year, we are asked to find ourselves in it in new ways, so that we might live more fully and with deeper meaning. May the year to come be one in which the cries of grief are fewer, and the opportunities to do good are greater, but more than anything, may we be able to bring all of ourselves to the world, and to support one another as a community through whatever is to come.