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Giving Voice to Ourselves; Giving Voice to Others

October 9, 2016

I recently heard an amazing Podcast.  As soon as I heard it I thought of Rosh Hahanah.  It tells of a woman named Rupal Patel, a speech scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.  She works with people who are speech impaired due to head injuries, congenital disorders like cerebral palsy, or degenerative diseases like ALS. Many of them rely on text-to-speech machines, typing words that are then vocalized electronically.  The most famous person to use such a device is Stephen Hawking.  (The podcast can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/07/283452215/how-do-you-construct-a-voice.  To read more about Patel, check out the following article: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/12/donate-your-voice-to-charity/383878/)

In August 2002 she was at a conference in Denmark about speech technology.  As she walked through the exhibition hall she noticed a young woman and an older man engaged in conversation.  But their voices sounded exactly the same – they were both using the same text-to-speech system.  Once she was clued in to this one conversation, she noticed that throughout the hall the same thing was repeating itself.  People of all different ages, from different countries, different races were having conversations with each other in the same robotic voice. As Patel explains, “We wouldn’t dream of fitting a little girl with a prosthetic limb of a grown man. So why then the same prosthetic voice?”

In fact, part of her research that had brought her to the conference included the discovery that many people with text-to-speech devices prefer NOT to use the devices because they sound like robots.

This led Patel to found VocaliD (https://www.vocalid.co/), a company that develops personalized voices for people who rely on these devices to speak.  The abridged version of how it works is that Patel records whatever sound the impaired person is able to make – even if it’s as basic as “AHHH.”  Her computer program then searches the company’s voice bank – a database of approximately 14,000 voices to find the best match for the person’s melody– pitch, tempo and volume.  The computer program then takes recorded words and sounds made by the donor voice and overlays it with the melody or the voice DNA of the recipient.  The end result is a customized voice that conveys the recipient’s unique vocal identity.  She is literally helping people to find their voice and giving voice to those who did not have one.

This is a Rosh Hashanah story for two reasons.  The first is allow us to reflect on the joy of finding our own voice. It has been pointed by many that the Shofar is able to give voice to prayers that we cannot articulate.

The Shem MiShmuel (Shmuel Borenstein, 2 November 1856-8 January 1926), the second Sochatchover Rebbe writes:

 

Even though verbal prayer comes from the heart, it becomes “dressed” in the physicality of the mouth, and therefore enters the world of physicality and is therefore not as potent/meritorious as when it left the heart.  But the voice of the shofar is pure and has no physicality.

The sound of the shofar comes straight from the heart and is not adulterated by the physicality/difficulty of translating our most spiritual and emotional yearning into physical words. 

When we use the shofar as the catalyst for prayer and when we attach our prayers to the sound of the shofar then our tefilot are able to ascend up high in their purest form.

 

The Shofarot section of the RH Mussaf concludes:

ברכת שופרות של ר”ה מוסף

כי אתה שומע קול שופר ומאזין תרועה ואין דומה לך ברוך אתה ה’ שומע קול תרועת עמו ישראל ברחמים

For You hear the sond of the shofar and Yu give ear to the teruah and none is comparable to You.  Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears the shofar sound of His people Israel with mercy.

Yitzchak Mirsky in Hegyonei Halachah Vol. II explains:

אין דומה לך – אתה לבדך מבין מקולות השופר את תפילת עמך ואין דומה לך בזה

None is comparable to You – You alone understand from the sound of the shofar the prayers of your nation.  And there is none like You in this.

The shofar brings out prayers that only God can understand.  Even we who utter those prayers do not always understand them.   And it is the prayer, the hopes and dreams that are brought out by the shofar that represent our true selves.  Who we really are.

The second reason the story of VocaliD resonates with me is that it tells of one of our key missions: to give voice to others.

In the podcast we are introduced to Shannon Ward, a 13-year old girl with Cerebral Palsy.  She was the recipient of a voice created by Rupal Patel and VocaliD.  When asked if the new voice changed her, Shannon’s mother answered:

WARD: Absolutely. It just increased her confidence, it increased her desire to want to use her device. I know, personally, that she loves to talk with her friends more. She stands out, and I think people take her differently when they hear a voice that sounds like a 13-year-old girl as opposed to a voice that sounds like a robot of an adult.

RAZ: OK, you have a 13-year-old daughter. She is now a teenager. If she’s talking more, is she arguing more with you?

WARD: Absolutely. I know it might sound so bizarre, but there are times I’m like, can we unplug the device for a little bit because I have a kid that does not stop.

One of my favorite teachings comes from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.  It is actually hanging on the wall of our home:  דע לך שכל רועה ורועה יש לו ניגון מיוחד משלו.  Each and every Jew has his or her own unique song.  This is true of every Jew – each one of us has unique life experiences, a unique set of skills and a unique perspective.  We therefore each have a unique song – a unique set of praise to offer Hashem.  Not only must we focus on our song and how we approach Hashem as individuals, but we also must make a commitment to helping others find their voice.

Thank God, we are blessed to be part of a shul community that takes this seriously.  In a few moments Avishye Moskowitz will serve as our ba’al tokeah.  You would be hard-pressed to find another shul where a 9th grader is trusted – and encouraged – to take on this awesome task.  Our shul values hearing the voices and perspectives of others and creates opportunities for this to happen.

Let me share one more thought.  The genius of what Rupal Patel is to make the voice match the body from which it comes.  The same is true for us and the voice of the shofar.  The shofar has the capacity to bring out our deepest yearnings, desires, hopes and aspirations.  And throughout the yamim nora’im there are sure to be moments when we make promises to ourselves to be better.  Where we commit to do more.  Where we will feel genuine remorse for having come up short in one area or another.

And those promises, commitments, feelings of regret are real.  But we also know that they will not last.  We may make a commitment to attend minyan regularly, but what will happen the first time we have a late night the night before?  We promise that we will get more involved in the shul or other organizations in the community.  But when we get that call to join a committee or help plan an event, we really want to say yes but this is just not the right time.  There is so much going on.  We really want to invite a new family over for Shabbos, or someone we haven’t had over….The list goes on and on.

When we have those moments of despair and disappointment, there are two things to keep in mind. Knowing that this will happen, we may feel like hypocrites when we make promises to ourselves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But we have to keep in mind that the promises of RH and YK were real.  Those are the reflections of who we really are.  Our challenge the rest of the year is live up to that best version of ourselves.  It is when we fail to live up to the promises that we are hypocrites.

With this in mind, I’d like to conclude with an amazing teaching from another Chasidic master, the Kotzker.

Rabbi Menachem Mendle of Kotzk once put this question to his students:  what was the hardest part of the Akedah for Abraham?  Was it the initial call, the long walk to Moriah, or the binding?  His answer:  the hardest part was coming down the mountain.

In peak moments of our lives, the immediacy, the rush of adrenaline, often carries us through.  What happens afterward is the true test of sincerity, for afterwards we must live with the consequences of our actions.  Are we faithful to those peak moments?  Do we forget them, or disregard them?

 

The prayers, promises and regrets that emerge during shofar blowing are real; they reflect who we really are.  With that in mind, we owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to make sure we have a plan to “come down from the mountain.”  To set up our lives so that we are able to realize these expressions of ourselves.

 

As we prepare for tekiat shofar, it is with the bracha that the sounds of the Shofar help us to find our own, unique voice and that it gives us the courage and insight to help others find theirs.  שנה טובה.

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