The Voice

Rabbi Meir would say: One person is different from another in three ways: in voice, in appearance, and in thought.
— BT Sanhedrin 38a

After a recent class, a psychiatrist shared a study with me about the power of the voice in offering consolation. The study compared the voice of a parent over the phone with the voice of a parent face-to-face and then with texting or other non-audial forms of communication. A parent’s voice over the phone or in person had virtually the same calming impact, but the “voice” of a parent in a text did not. The voice is a powerful mechanism in communication, an often-overlooked tool in today’s technological advancement, where the quick text has replaced the distinctiveness of the human voice.

We know from the Talmudic sage Rabbi Meir that the voice is one of the hallmarks of a person. We even have an interesting biblical prooftext to this effect in a complex and troubling story. In Genesis, Jacob dresses like his brother but does not succeed in totally fooling his father. He got close to Isaac only to hear these terrifying words: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” (Genesis 27:22). The brothers were non-identical twins who looked different and sounded different from each other.

In the journal Psychological Science, researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University attempted to show that a person’s voice can also affect his or her sense of confidence and authority. Ko was inspired to study this by Margaret Thatcher, who apparently had extensive voice coaching to make her sound more powerful and in control. As Ko said in an article about his research: “Our findings suggest that whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions.” In his study, students assigned to high-power roles were higher in pitch and more monotone than those assigned to less authoritative roles. Fascinating.

This brings us to a voice we welcome back this week in the Jewish calendar: the voice of the shofar that is blown each morning in the Hebrew month of Elul leading up to our Days of Awe. The sound connects us to millennia of spiritual noise and to our own unarticulated cries as we begin this season of repentance and introspection: “Then have the shofar sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land,” (Exodus 19:19). We affirm this one book later: “Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the shofar throughout your land,” (Lev. 25:9).

Interestingly, the text of the blessing we make as part of our formal liturgy is not to blow the shofar but to listen, and not just to listen to the shofar but “to listen to the voice of the shofar:” “Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who commands us to listen to the voice of the shofar.”  The text intimates that the instrument has a voice. So whose voice is it?

In the Abraham narratives where the first shofar appears after the binding of Isaac, we could imagine it being the voice of the weeping father, the frightened son or the grieving, shocked mother. Looking later, it may be the voice of God at Sinai, where another shofar was blown. A midrash links these two shofarot, suggesting that the voice of personal covenant in a Genesis story playfully morphs into the voice of collective covenant in Exodus. The sound of that covenant? It’s the shofar. It sounds human but is not human; it is a wail, a sharp cry, the repeated intakes of breathlessness that represents who we are when we confront our rawest selves.

There is an argument in the Talmud about the legal status of someone who hears a shofar that is blown in a pit or a cave (BT Rosh Hashana 27b). If a person hears the sound bouncing off the walls of an enclosed space, has he or she fulfilled the requirements of the mitzva on Rosh Hashana? Later, rabbinic conclusions codify the law: the reverberations of the shofar are not the shofar. They are the echo sounds, an imitation of the real thing but far from the real thing. It’s only if the listener hears the sound of the shofar directly and in an unmediated way that the mitzvah has been observed.

The shofar reminds us that the piercing, truly human voice is the only real voice. A text is not a voice. An e-mail is not a voice. An unfulfilled good intention is not a voice. Only a voice is a voice. Someone may need your voice right now. You may need the voice of someone else. Nothing less will do.

Shabbat Shalom