There are those sounds, that when heard, instantaneously rouse within us trenchant thoughts and emotions frequently relegated to the deepest recesses of our psyche. While sound affects us in many ways, its psychological effects are undeniably the most profound. According to Jean-Luc Nancy, the French philosopher, “Sonority is both time and meaning.” Like no other sense, sound animates our consciousness and situates us within the sequence of our individual lives.
What happens when a collective hears the same sound? While each may be affected in varying degrees, every individual member is transported on his or her own associative journey. Does the deeper and highly individual reaction to the shared stimulus mean that the bands of collective unity dissipate? Or does the collective experience provide a security and confidence for deeper and more meaningful introspection, thereby intensifying the experience on multiple levels?
On Sunday, and then again on Monday, such a sound will be heard across the State of Israel. The wail of the air-raid sirens will once again pierce the ears of everyone within her borders. This will include people who deeply identify with its overarching significance, as well as many people who do not, and are even hostile to its purpose.
Regardless, Israel will usher in what is arguably the most difficult day of the year: The Day of Remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. National ceremonies will be held on Mount Herzl and at the Western Wall, memorial services will be held at military cemeteries across the country, and radio and television programming will be completely dedicated to the subject at hand — the fallen.
In the minutes leading up to the clarion calls, those who identify with the experience will cease conversations, find a place to park, and otherwise ready themselves to engage in a collective activity of solemnity and consequence. As the pealing cry of the siren crescendos to its full intensity, the disparate countrywide throng will coalesce into a unified assembly, a living memorial completely abstract, but also profoundly literal.
This memorial will not be a static edifice to be contemplated, rather it will be a living memorial that epitomizes the depth of one’s identification with a people, a country, a history and a mission. This is what the eminent Jewish sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who died in Buchenwald taught us. Beyond our highly personal individual memories, there lay a collective societal memory that when engaged, binds us together in a transcendent continuum. For Jews, this is not a foreign notion. Jewish history is a participatory event.
There is perhaps no object that symbolizes this notion of history and relationship more than the Shofar, the ram’s horn, usually heard only on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. At that time, the sound of the Shofar is meant to awaken our hearts and souls and inspire us toward introspection and contrition. However, the Shofar also represents other seminal events in Jewish history, both past and future: The binding of Isaac, the Covenant made at Sinai, an allusion to the Final Days, a reminder of the Ingathering of the Exiles, and even a reference to the Revival of the Dead. Many have the indelible picture in their minds of Israel’s then Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounding the Shofar at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when it was liberated during the Six Day War.
As a civil holiday observed in Israel, Yom Hazikaron has not managed to make significant inroads of identification – let alone observance – in the Diaspora community. Many reasons are touted for this: Distance, both physical and spiritual, from the country and the people; a lack of familiarity with anyone directly affected; discomfort and guilt from not being an active participant in the defense of Israel or the Jewish people; remoteness from the national ethos. They are all logical and understandable. However, when all is said and done, so many Jews from around the world, of all denominations, of all degrees of observance, of all levels of affiliation, recognize the State of Israel as the nexus of Jewish survival and resurgence. They also deeply understand the necessity of cohesiveness, alliance, and of unity, particularly in a world in which the Jew is a constant target.
The siren that will sound next week in Israel is certainly a Shofar. The tone that it produces is assuredly akin to the moaning ‘genuchay ganach’ and the mournful ‘yelulei yelal’ sounds we hear on the New Year. We know that to fulfill the commandment of the Shofar, we cannot simply blow it. Nor can we merely hear it. We must internalize it. It must move us. We must allow the sound to connect us to Jewish history, tothe Jewish present and to the entire nation of Israel.
Edward Jacobs is a principal at The Berenbaum Group, a museum design firm, through which he designs and develops concept and exhibition design for projects in the United States, Israel and Europe.