Below is the d'var Torah that Laviot was asked to write for Grassroots Jews' Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur booklet.
Uncertainty can be a great thing, associated with freedom, serendipity and exhilarating suspense. It can also be a very upsetting thing, bringing with it anxiety, indecision and doubt. An example: Sisera’s mother.
Sisera was a Canaanite army commander around 1100BC, who wreaked havoc for 20 years before being defeated in battle by the Israelites under the command of Barak and Deborah. He was killed by Jael, a badass woman who hammered a nail into his head, but his mother, unaware, stands at the window after he was supposed to return, drowning in the uncertainty of her son’s fate (Judges 5:2-30).
בְּעַד֩ הַחַלּ֨וֹן נִשְׁקְפָ֧ה וַתְּיַבֵּ֛ב אֵ֥ם סִֽיסְרָ֖א בְּעַ֣ד הָֽאֶשְׁנָ֑ב מַדּ֗וּעַ בֹּשֵׁ֤שׁ רִכְבּוֹ֙ לָב֔וֹא מַדּ֣וּעַ אֶֽחֱר֔וּ פַּעֲמֵ֖י מַרְכְּבוֹתָֽיו׃
Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
It is clear Sisera was not a good guy. It is also probable that Sisera’s mother was not a great person either. And yet, the gemara says (Rosh Hashanah 33b) that the reason we sound 100 blasts of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Teruah (the Day of Blasts) and Yom Yevava (the Day of Sobs), is because of the 100 wails of Sisera’s mother as she stands at the window.
ראש השנה ל״ג ב:י׳
יום תרועה יהיה לכם ומתרגמינן יום יבבא יהא לכון וכתיב באימיה דסיסרא )שופטים ה, כח( בעד החלון נשקפה ותיבב אם סיסרא מר סבר גנוחי גנח ומר סבר ילולי יליל
Rosh Hashanah 33b:10
As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you” (Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28).
If Sisera’s mother knew whether he was dead or alive, she could at least process the information and put the appropriate next steps into action. The uncertainty however, the fear of what might be, the hypotheticals running through her head, those are tormenting and fearful.
Rabbi Alex Israel of Pardes Institute in Jerusalem writes that “this is the voice of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah”. We are at a time of spiritual uncertainty. Will we be written into the Book of Life or the Book of Death? What fate will befall us over the year ahead? What has God in store for us?
But as we hear the 100 sounds of the shofar, we should reflect also on the personal uncertainties that many people face, both on the everyday and long-term. Jews, LGBT+ people, women, people of colour, people with disabilities. We all face the uncertainty of how expressing our identities will be met by those around us. Will we be tolerated, accepted, welcomed, celebrated? Will we be ignored, laughed at, threatened, abused?
This holiday season, may we all have the strength to see uncertainty as an opportunity for steering the course of our own lives. And when we see uncertainty in others, may we extend reassurance and support.
Chag sameach and shana tov from Laviot