The Shofar of Mauna Kea
Dev Noily, Kol Nidre 5780
The Shofar’s Story
Tonight I want to share a story about a shofar. If you were here on Rosh Hashana morning, you’ve already heard part of the story. In the week leading up to Rosh Hashana, I got a message from my friend Alex Tan – a young activist who used to work at JYCA – Jewish Youth for Community Action. Alex had been at Standing Rock, and now he’d been invited to go to Mauna Kea, where Indigenous Hawai’ians and allies are protecting that sacred site from the construction of a giant telescope.
Alex said he’d be arriving on Mauna Kea on Yom Kippur. And he was thinking about two questions – First, how to incorporate his own practice of Yom Kippur into his time on the Mauna. And second, he wanted to bring a gift that would come from his culture to offer to the protectors of the site.
The shofar quickly emerged as the right messenger. It was symbol and practice of our people that Alex could bring, both for his own practice, and as a gift offering. I went to Afikomen, and spent time with many shof’rot looking for the one that wanted to make the journey– (some might say too much time, given my to do list at this time of year). I listened to their sounds, felt their weight in my hand, told them what we had in mind. And one small shofar stood out.
That shofar was here with us on Rosh Hashana, and it was an essential part of our fulfillment of the mitzvah to hear the voice of the shofar. Its little body filled this room with its cry. And as the shofar alerted us to be more awake, we also imbued it with our blessings, to carry our blessings, and us, with it to the Mauna–
Blessed with our sacred practice, blessed on one of our holiest of days, blessed with our gratitude for being free to enact our sacred rituals, blessed with our solidarity with the people on the Mauna protecting their sacred place and practice, blessed with our widening understanding that our practice here and their practice there are distinct pathways, but they both lead to the Same One who we Name every day in the Shema.
Blessed in these ways, the shofar came next to Alex. He and I discussed teachings about the shofar, and the meanings of the calls. Alex practiced sounding it, so that the same calls that are heard in every Jewish community scattered across the world could also be heard on Mauna Kea. Alex received the shofar with an awe and humility that I felt too. We both felt reverence for the shofar, and for its power to connect us to wider and wider circles of love and respect for the earth and its beings. Tomorrow, G-d willing, Alex will sound the shofar on Mauna Kea, and offer it as a gift to the protectors there.
Somehow this little shofar has opened me up, as I felt it reconnecting us to our own ancestors and at the same time, connecting us to a very different community across the ocean. Somehow this little shofar is both an ancient relic, and uniquely of this moment – an instrument that could only come to life in this way right now.
This is what I want to invite you to explore with me tonight:
This powerful connection between our ancestral teachings, and the unprecedented moment we are living in.
Our Ancient Teachings Meet Our Unprecedented Time
All around us, every day, we can feel the stakes getting higher. We can feel that we’re in a new time, a different kind of time. We can feel the waters rising around us – as the ice melts and the seasons fluctuate in ways we’ve never seen before. Capitalism is cracking under its own gilded weight. The gods of extraction and domination are showing themselves to be empty idols. We’re in a swirling and unpredictable unfolding of great and global change.
These changes are threatening the existence of innumerable living beings and living systems, including the planet itself. But it’s not only the threats that are unprecedented. This is also a time of unprecedented and rapidly expanding possibilities.
Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, zichrono livracha, used to teach that each of the world’s spiritual traditions is like a vital organ in the body of humanity. The traditions are collaborative, not competitive, and the body needs them all to be healthy and vibrant in order to work well.
Sometimes I imagine that it’s not just that each of our traditions is needed to keep the body of humanity alive. I don’t quite have the right metaphor yet, but it’s like our future is just on the other side of great, glass door, and we can see through it, but the door locked. And the lock isn’t a simple lock, but a complex one that needs many different keys to open it. I imagine that each of the world’s traditions is holding one of the keys to that lock. And it’s only when all of us come to that great glass door, each with our unique keys, that together, we’ll be able to unlock it, and find our way to a more balanced, more compassionate world. I imagine a great assembly of all of the world’s spiritual and wisdom traditions, sitting outside the glass door, collaborating to figure out how make all of the keys work together to open lock. We don’t know yet how our key will fit. We may not even know yet what our key looks like.
But this coming together of all of humanity’s wisdom and teaching – it’s never been possible before. It’s only been for an instant in human history that we have had such deep access to each other’s cultures, spiritual practices, and ancestral wisdom. For the first time, millions of people can deeply explore the confluences and tensions among all of the world’s teachings. And as we have more and more access to each other’s wisdom, those confluences can be extraordinary.
The Kumulipo, the Big Bang & the Zohar
A striking example of this actually involves Mauna Kea, where an astronomer and a professor of Hawai’ian languages discovered a remarkable connection. Larry Kimura is a professor at the University of Hawai’i who is known as the grandfather of Hawai’ian language revitalization. He has worked to preserve the Hawai’ian oral creation chant called the Kumulipo. Doug Simons is an astronomer who has spent his career working on some of the existing telescopes on Mauna Kea.
When he heard Kimura’s translation of the prologue to the Kumulipo, the creation chant, he found it unmistakably and mind-blowingly aligned with the most current scientific descriptions of the birth of the universe.1
Here is Larry Kimura’s translation of the prologue of the Kumulipo:
When fundamental space altered through heat,
When the Cosmos altered, turning inside out,
When the sun was flickering between darkness and light
Attempting to brighten the moon,
When this complete abyss was dotted with tiny stars–
This is rudimentary to begin a space.
The source of impenetrable darkness, so profound.
A fathomless power, reincarnating itself.
The miraculous, the dark, the deep.
The darkness of the sun, absolute, intense darkness.
It is simply darkness, penetrating and fathomless!2
Like Doug Simons, I recognized the description of the Big Bang in the words of the Kumulipo.
But I also recognized something else: the opening passages of the Zohar. The Zohar, a Jewish mystical text, is essentially a midrash – an interpretive commentary – on the Torah. The Zohar appeared in the 13th century in Spain, and was attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived about 1,000 years before that.
Here is Daniel Matt’s translation of the beginning of the Zohar:
….A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed,
from the head of Infinity—
a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all.
As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors.
Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Infinity (Ein Sof).
It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone.
Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called “reishit”, beginning, first command of all.3
Both of these descriptions of Creation are eerily primordial, using language almost against itself to disrupt the common meanings of the words. Darkness, light and color fluctuate and space is turned inside-out. The Kumulipo speaks of the “darkness of the sun” and “the cosmos turning inside-out.”
- The Physics of Po and the Po of Physics, Talk by Larry Kimura and Doug Simons, accessed on YouTube http://naleo.cablecast.tv:8081/CablecastPublicSite/show/6610?channel=1
2 ibid, at 19:51
3 The Zohar, Pritzker Edition Volume 1. Translation & Commentary by Daniel C. Matt. Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 107.
The Zohar says that “a single, concealed, supernal point shone” and that “A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity” Larry Kimura’s translation of the Kumulipo echoes these exact words: “impenetrable darkness – so profound.”
How is it that an epic creation chant from the islands of the Pacific, and a Jewish midrash from the other side of the earth, and a contemporary construction of theoretical physics – all paint such a similar picture of the beginnings of time?
For me, it hints at the possibility of a deeper unity across human cultures and human thinking. The resonance especially between the Kumulipo and the Zohar reveals a connection that has existed for centuries, but that was hidden until we gained access to each other’s teachings. Who knows what other connections might be revealed as we continue to learn from each other, across cultures and spiritual traditions? And how can we recognize those connections and their significance if we don’t intimately know our own spiritual tradition?
So I want to suggest that the mystery of these three overlapping, intersecting visions also points us back to our own Jewish practice, to our own traditions, whether they are familiar to you or strange to you.
In this light, we actually have two simultaneous purposes for our practice here:
First, our Jewish practice during these Days of Awe is personal. And second, our Jewish practice during these Days of Awe is a living, breathing part of the Great Healing of our world.
Our personal practice is to re-set ourselves, to re-orient ourselves to what matters most,to look at how we contribute to the suffering in the world – to our own and to other people’s, and to do the work that allows us to repair the harm we have done, and to learn how to cause less harm in the future, Our practice is to deep-clean our spirits, the way we deep-clean our homes during Pesach.
But our practice is not just about strengthening our spirits and clearing our minds. The second purpose has to do with playing our part in the Great Healing, and in the unfolding of Creation, even if it is mostly a mystery to us. Our practice is also about keeping alive and transmitting our Jewish practice, and becoming intimate with our particular set of instructions. So that we can bring our unique key to this Great Healing, this great assembling of insight and practice that is happening in a way that has never been possible before in the history of humans on the earth. We don’t know yet if the healing can happen quickly enough, or fully enough. But we know we have a part to play in trying.
Reaching for the Heavens, Rooting in the Earth
When I first learned about the struggle on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, over the building of a an 18-story tall Thirty Meter Telescope on a mountain that is the holiest site for the Indigenous people there, I felt conflicted.
I’m understanding more and more the importance of protecting Indigenous sacred sites – both for their own sake, and as a model for honoring and loving the earth. But I also studied physics in college. And I love physics and astronomy and telescopes and looking to the stars.
So I’ve been learning more about the Indigenous fight to protect the mountain, and about the giant telescope they’re trying to protect it from. It turns out that one of the indigenous leaders of the movement on Mauna Kea, Kealoha Pisciotta, also studied physics in college, and also loves astronomy.4 She says about the Thirty Meter Telescope, “We have reached our limit. Science has to accept that there are human limits also.”5
What I hear her saying is that there’s a place for scientific exploration, and Mauna Kea is already home to 13 other telescopes. But there comes a time when the people who hold the mountain to be sacred can’t bear another, bigger, more invasive construction project, even if its purpose is to study the stars.
I’ve heard astronomers talk about the 14,000 foot peak of Mauna Kea as the “darkest spot on earth” and the best place on the planet to look out into space, and so back into time. I’ve heard them describe the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, as being able to look ten times further out into space than any other telescope, which means looking ten times deeper into the universe’s history, ten times further back into the past. I see the astronomers filled with awe and wonder at the vastness of space—reaching, reaching, farther and farther out into space and back into time.6,7
And I’ve heard Indigenous leaders say, this is our sacred mountain. This is the center of our life. We love it, we care for it, we walk tenderly and respectfully here. This mountain is alive, it is a god for us. We cannot allow it to be dug up and leveled off, to be scarred and hacked into.
We won’t allow its sacredness to be disregarded, its aliveness to be denied, its vulnerability to be exploited. The Mauna is the place where the realm of the universe above meets the realm of the earth below. It has been the holiest place for our people from time immemorial.6,7
The astronomer says: look up, look far – farther into the distance, deeper into space, back through the reaches of time – to find out who we are and our place in the universe. The farther we can see in the distance, the more we will know about ourselves.
The Indigenous leader says: look here, to the land under your feet, to the mist on the mountain, to the ocean and the animals. Be quiet. Sit still. Listen hard. Stay and watch for a year, a generation, a hundred generations. And we will know who we are and what our place is.
Lo bashamayim hi – It is not far from you in the heavens
And this tension between reaching far out into the mystery and looking right here, right now – it took me right to the Torah, to a passage near the very end of the Torah, which we read just the week before last, in parashat Nitzvaim.
- This is Our Last Stand: Protesters on Mauna Kea Dig in Their Heels. CNN, July 22, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/21/us/hawaii-mauna-kea-protests/index.html; at 2:40.
7 Why Native Hawaiians Protesting Giant Telescope on Mauna Kea Aren’t Going Anywhere | NBC Left Field, August 13, 2019. Accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxdV7i54Rfc
This teaching that I teach you this day,
It’s not too baffling for you,
It’s not too far away!
It’s not in the heavens, that you should say:
Who will go up for us to the heavens and get it for us, and tell it to us, so that we can follow it?
And it is not across the sea that you should say:
Who will cross for us, across the sea, and get it for us, and tell it to us, so that we can follow it?
No, this teaching is so close to you!
It is in your mouth,
And in your heart,
To follow it.
See, I set before you life and good, or death and suffering….
Life and death I place before you, blessing and curse –
So choose life! So that you and your children, and your children’s children can live!8
What we need is so close to us!
It’s in our mouth!
It’s in our heart!
Way back in the midbar, in the wilderness, in a time before time, all of our people gathered at the foot of another mountain. Moses went up the mountain and spent many days and nights receiving Torah, receiving the instructions for how we can live in balance and alignment. And our tradition teaches that the words of our Torah, the ones that got written down, are only part of the instruction that Moses received. The other part is transmitted orally, from generation to generation, from teacher to student, from mouth to mouth.
Our sages taught that even Moses didn’t understand the Oral Torah he was given. But his job was to transmit it faithfully, because people would come in the future who would need those very instructions that he himself couldn’t make sense of. The midrash even teaches that G-d had to show Moses, through instantaneous time travel, a future teacher whose words of Torah were incomprehensible to Moses.9
And that Torah that Moses brought down from the mountain has been transmitted, given over into our hands, our mouths, our hearts. And the Torah that we receive, and that we teach, may be unrecognizable to Moses, or even to some of our parents or grandparents. But it’s on us to listen for the teaching that’s being revealed to us. To listen hard. To keep our minds and hearts open to both the inherited wisdom of the ages and the emerging wisdom of our moment.10
- Deuteronomy, 30:11-5; 30:19b; Translation based on Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses.
- Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b. Rabbi Akiva (late 1st /early 2nd century CE) is the teacher Moses is shown. 10 My understanding of Torah as reflected here is deeply influenced by my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe.
As we practice tonight, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon, and into the evening, and beyond – wherever you are during those hours, and however you practice – the invitation is to open up to how this teaching is moving through you, today. What insight arises, what part of you is lifted up, what possibility opens up for you? What is the unique shifting that can only happen when the one-and-only you-ness on this day meets the teachings of our ancestors? These next 24 hours may include confusion, frustration, aversion, anger. They may include opening, clarity, insight, forgiveness.
We are, each of us, climbing a mountain. We don’t know what we will encounter.
The practice is to pay attention.
The practice is to attune our awareness to the still, small voice.
The practice is to allow ourselves to be lifted up by each other’s practice, by this powerful and empowering community of prayer and ritual and song and tradition.
Sometimes I think about the religious Jewish men B’nei Brak who made that little shofar. I wonder if any of them imagined that the work of their hands would pass through our community, through our hands, through Indigenous hands. I wonder if they imagined that it would come to life with Alex’s breath, the breath of a queer Jew of Color. I wonder if they imagined that it would scale a holy mountain in the middle of the Pacific ocean and become part of a great ceremony of protection and love of the earth. They had no way of knowing that the work of their hands would become part of this Great Healing. I think about how that little shofar connects me, and us, also to them – keepers of our traditional ways.
The gates are open now.
May our practice give new life to each of us in the ways that we need, right here and right now. And may our practice help keep our traditions alive and growing, ready to reveal new and unimaginable Torah to us, to our children, and to theirs.
And may we all be part of the Great Healing that has never been more needed, and that has never been more possible.
Ken yehi ratzon.