Shomeia Kol Truat Amo Yisrael B’rachamim
Hearing the Cries of Israel with Compassion
One of my first students was a Grade 9 pupil whom I would describe as a fine young man. He was clean cut and kind, socially well-adjusted, and well-liked. Academically he was not an exceptionally high achiever, but a conscientious and solid performer. In Grade 10, things began to change. He coloured his hair and began to wear old, torn clothing. He was absent more frequently, and when he was at school, he seemed distracted. His grades slipped a bit, but not dramatically. My colleagues and I were somewhat concerned, and at the same time did not want to impose ourselves on his private life, process or teen journey. He did not appear to be in any personal or academic danger, so we decided the best approach was to give him his space. Within a few months he had returned to his previous appearance and persona, and we felt, as educators, we had managed the situation appropriately.
I remained close with this student throughout his high school years. A few weeks before he graduated we sat together and I asked him to reflect upon his time in our school. He was quite positive, describing his experience as enjoyable and successful. Except for that time in Grade 10. How was it, he wanted to know, that during his time of turmoil, when his family life was falling apart, that no one reached out to help him? He had done everything to try to get our attention, he recalled. He had bleached his hair and completely changed his wardrobe, altered his study habits and even skipped school. How could no one have noticed?
There are times we feel we are crying out and no one is listening. We believe we are calling out with our pain, begging to be noticed, but failing to be acknowledged.
The Torah designates Rosh Hashanah as Yom Zichron Truah. Truah is associated with the sound of the shofar, though the term in the Bible is much broader. Truah means to shout or to cry; it is the sound we make when we call out for attention. It is a sound made by the shofar, but it can also be a personal call, expressed through our voice or our actions.
Letting others know of our needs is difficult. Often, we prefer to suffer in silence rather than ask for help, which can feel uncomfortable or humiliating. For this reason, the Torah sets aside Rosh HaShanah as a time when we are all summoned to cry out with our pain. In the name Yom Zichron Truah, the word Zichron means to be remembered, thus Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Remembrance through Crying Out. On this day, we cry out to God, urging Him to remember us, to take notice of us, to pay attention to us.
The Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh HaShanah tell of people who cried out to God: our matriarch Sarah and Elkanah’s wife Hannah, both of whom cried out for progeny when they were barren, and the concubine Hagar who cried to the Lord when her son was dying of thirst. Reading their stories on Yom Truah, we are inspired to join them, for just as their cries were heard and their prayers answered, we feel assured that God will hear our cries as well, and likewise remember us.
In the Haftarah for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read of our mother Rachel who cried out for her children to be returned from exile. While we are blessed to witness the ingathering of the exiles in the State of Israel, Rachel’s children, Ephraim and Manasseh, remain lost tribes, awaiting the final redemption. From this we learn that when we cry out to God, it may take a great deal of time before we are heard.
In the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, an angel of God calls out to Abraham to spare his son Isaac from slaughter. This reminds us that, while we are occupied with our cries to God, we must also be attentive when He calls to us. Abraham must have been crying out to God in his heart to stay the awful command; had he not also been listening for God’s voice, he may have lost his son. Abraham teaches that we must never be so loud when we cry out that we drown out and become deaf to the call of others.
While Rosh HaShanah is dedicated to crying out to God, it has an important, secondary benefit. Because it is a season of shouting, it is also a time when we are acutely sensitive to sound. On Rosh HaShanah each of us is, in the words of Hannah “…pouring out our soul before the Lord.” We know, therefore, that if we listen carefully, we will hear cries of our friends, our family, and even strangers. While cries intoned may be intended for God, they can be overheard by mortals. There is no need to wait for God when we can be there to help.
While the Torah designates Rosh HaShanah as the Day of Crying Out; Chazal, our sages, understand it primarily as the Day of Repentance. Just so, for this is the time to ask forgiveness for not listening—to the word of God and the voice of those calling to us for help. Since the conversation with my student, I have resolved to listen more closely to those around me—my personal penance for not hearing his voice many years ago. As for my student, he went on to become a psychiatrist, dedicating his life to helping others by listening to their voices. His story should compel all of us to be better and more compassionate listeners in this new year. If we do so, we are certain to bring blessings upon us, our loved ones, and all of Israel.