By Yael Unterman
Member of the David Cardozo Academy
Think Tank and Halachic Lab
I open this essay with a hypothesis that, frankly, I find repulsive:
The central lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that truth is overrated.
As a person highly committed to truth, I loathe this statement. Yet, paradoxically, I state the above precisely because I am committed to exploring its truth, regardless. And with this contradiction, we embark on a debate of great importance, one I have not entirely resolved even for myself.
Let us begin with the strange conundrum of Sisera’s mother. In Shoftim chapter 5 (known as the “Song of Deborah”) we meet the mother of Sisera. Sisera was a Canaanite general battling the Israelites, until an Israelite ally, a woman named Yael, enticed him into her tent and killed him with a tent peg. In the Song, after lyrically applauding Yael, Deborah the prophetess proceeds to imagine the mother pathetically waiting for her son, who, unbeknownst to her, is lying at that moment in a puddle of his own blood:
“Through the window she looked and moaned, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?’” (Shoftim 5:28)
This woman is essentially an invented figure, unnamed and unimportant, a mere object poetically used to emphasize the Israelite victory. So imagine our surprise to find her playing a starring role in the following Talmudic discussion concerning the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah:
“‘Through the window she looked forth (nishkafah), and she lamented (va-teyabev)’. One authority believes this refers to a long sigh, and another that it refers to short piercing cries.” (Rosh Hashanah 33b)
The Sages choose to understand the word va-teyabev as a crying, ululating and lamenting sound . Following from this, in debating the correct lengths of the various shofar blasts, they turn for guidance to Sisera’s mother and her vocal expressions of grief at her son’s delay.
And we are astonished. While standing in the synagogue on the awe-filled Day of Judgement, are we to hear Sisera’s mother sighing in the long blasts and groaning in the short blasts of the shofar? The question only becomes more acute when we discover that an obvious alternative was available to the Sages, for several midrashim posit that the shofar sounds are based on our foremother Sarah’s wailing upon being informed of the events of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. The akedah already features prominently in our Rosh Hashanah consciousness, comprising the Torah reading on the second day of the festival. In a contest between our foremother Sarah and the enemy’s mother, it seems obvious who should win.
Answers there may be several. One powerful one might be that if we can demonstrate sufficient compassion to recall the enemy’s mother’s grief on the Day of Judgment, perhaps the Divine Judge will demonstrate similar compassion towards us. However, an even finer and more subtle point can be made here. At the moment that she is thus leaning through the lattice and groaning, the emotions within Sisera’s mother’s breast are complex. Though anxious and distraught at the delay, she has not yet surrendered all hope that her son will, at the next moment, come bounding up the hill. Her wise ladies reassure her in the next verse, and she also convinces herself, that he is simply busy dividing up the spoils. Alongside her worry and grief, she grasps desperately onto optimism, that all will yet come right.
Contrast this with Sarah. In the midrashim, after being informed that her husband tried to sacrifice her son, she wails in the manner of the shofar blasts, and then abruptly dies. Now, this extreme response is understandable if she thinks her son is dead; but in at least two of these midrashim , Isaac himself apparently reports the events. Why does she die if she sees her son standing before her? It must be from shock. This shock might be, as Prof. Yehuda Gellman suggests, caused by Abraham’s extreme degree of self-sacrifice . Dr. Avivah Zornberg offers a different resolution . Sarah suffers a sudden existential realization of “what might have been” – the truth of the “hair’s breadth that separates death from life.” She enters in her imagination into a world of existential vertigo where Isaac is already slaughtered and nothingness reigns; and with this, renounces her will to live.
Neither woman engages with the truth of her present reality. Though we know that her son’s death is a fait accompli, Sisera’s mother holds fast to a parallel universe with a different ending, in which her son comes home alive. Sarah does the direct reverse. In complete denial of her son standing before her, she becomes irrevocably lost in a parallel reality in which he actually died.
And with this let us return to the topic of truth. Many contemporary scientists and thinkers have abandoned the notion of objective truth altogether, positing that all truth is relative and subjective. Judaism believes in an absolute – the Divine, truth personified . Yet, in this world, Jewish sources inform us, truth is “hurled to the ground”, the bride is told she is beautiful even when objectively ugly, and we blithely ignore truth-bearing heavenly voices . A deep tension runs through Judaism like a fissure, between supremely affirming truth as a value and accepting its impossibilities and dangers. Rosh Hashanah, the day of creation and of the world’s blueprint, aptly contains in itself this paradox inherent to Judaism and to the world. On the one hand, it is a day of unparalleled truth. Ceasing our endless excuses, we stand before God and ourselves in the nakedness and pain of who we truly are. Yet, simultaneously, a ridiculous notion called repentance is introduced, whereby, even after carrying out a concrete, actual deed, we can through some delicate internal process expunge that deed from our history as if it never existed.
Indeed, the prophet Jonah, described as the son of “Amitai” (a word related to emet, meaning truth) fled from being an accessory to this seeming farce. Let Nineveh’s sinners suffer the consequences of their deeds! Yet he was wrong. Repentance represents a call to juxtapose, alongside truth, the value of imagination. Not in the sense of the fantastic and false, but rather in opening up to the mystery of the supra-rational, of the infinite parallel universes where all outcomes occur simultaneously, in which, so to speak, God resides.
Both Sarah and Sisera’s mother choose to re-imagine their present differently: Sarah, to the negative, and Sisera’s mother to hope, that it is not too late for a good outcome. We choose the latter. Hope and belief must take their place alongside truth. Under the banner of “truth”, cynics repress visionaries, squashing the very spark of potential change from life. Cynics such as these opposed Moses and Herzl; lucky for us, they did not win. Here in Israel, we have recently witnessed tent cities and unprecedented masses rallying for “social justice.” Observers have noted that the protesters seem to want different, even opposite things, which make the demonstrations seem silly and illogical. Yet the palpable hope, unity and fresh debate generated is crucial to the nation’s spirit, after many difficult and exhausting years have well-nigh battered our natural optimism into the ground.
So, in conclusion: truth is not overrated – on the contrary, it is an essential component of Rosh Hashanah. But truth must not stand alone. Pure din (judgment, kabbalistically the aspect associated with Sarah) must be tempered with an optimism so powerful that by a concerted effort of willpower, belief and genuine inner cleansing, we can declare in Maimonides’ words: “I am other, and I am no longer the person who did that sin!” 
Yet all this is but the beginning of the debate. The overarching questions of objective truth in this world still stand as in: “Can we really live by truth, or only by our truth? How can I declare my religious path true when numerous highly intelligent people choose another path? Did Abraham or Moses really exist? Did God give the Torah? In fact, does God even exist?” Nothing is proven beyond doubt; and I risk being preposterous, and living by false creeds.
I shall never despair of trying, through debate and reflection, to uncover more truth in my religion and existence, peeling away falsehoods small and large that have crept into both. Yet at the core of being religious – of life itself – lies the choice to embrace a mystery beyond understanding; the life-affirming choice of positive belief, as in: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that both you and your children may live!” 
Hence, on Rosh Hashanah, I shall stand with all my questions before a God whose existence remains unverified, and yet whom I nonetheless love and serve, having made the believer’s choice – not to wail and die, but to lean as far through my lattice as I can without toppling, calling out like a shofar blast: “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord!” 
Yael Unterman is the author of “Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar,” a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards. She is also a creative educator and life coach. She has participated in the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank for the past two years.
 The more mainstream translation of va-teyabev is “to look”, paralleling the first half of the verse, through the window she looked forth (nishkafa). However, the Sages choose to follow Onkelos’s Aramic translation of Numbers 29:1, in which he renders the Hebrew word “teruah” (blast) as “yebava” (wail).
 Leviticus Rabba, 20:2; Tanhuma Vayera 23.
 Yehuda Gellman, “And Sarah died”, Tradition (32:1, 1997, pp. 57-67. Abraham and Sarah represent the spiritual modes of hesed (lovingkindness) and din (judgment) respectively. Sarah’s shock is at Abraham’s desire and ability to be so self-sacrificial; and in her wail, pleas to G-d not to demand of her children such painful ‘Abrahamic’ self-sacrifice on the Day of Judgment.
 Avivah Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, New York: Doubleday, 1995, pp. 124-125.
 “The seal of the Holy One Blessed Be He is truth” (Shabbat, 55a).
 Bereshit Rabbah 8:5; Ketubot 16b-17a; Bava Metzia 59b. In all of these instances, the “pure truth” is rejected as being impossible to live by, or even immoral.
 Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 2:4.
 Deut. 30:19.
 Psalms 118:17.
To read further about Deborah, Sisera’s mother and the shofar, see Yael Unterman, “The Voice of the Shofar” in Torah of the Mothers:: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts, Susan Handelman, Ora Wiskind Elper eds.), Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2000.