This year I am fortunate to return to my childhood home for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In addition to the good food and the company of my family, parents, siblings and even a nephew with a new baby, I will get to hear my father blow shofar at shul, as he has done for many decades.
My memories of Rosh Hashanah extend beyond the dining room table and synagogue. As a child, my father and I would walk around the neighborhood after prayers visiting people who were too ill to attend services. I carried the shofar and my father took a machzor, as we visited people before running home to have lunch with the rest of the family. I recall elderly and sick individuals who were so happy to see my father, to recite the prayer of listening to the sound of the shofar, and to be able to appreciate the beautiful deep blasts from my father’s impeccable blows. For many of those elderly people, it would be the last shofar blasts that they would ever hear.
Decades later, with my own household and community, I have continued that tradition of blowing shofar for people who could not make it to synagogue. Of those many visits, two episodes stand out.
A few months after moving with my family to our new community, I volunteered to blow shofar for home-bound people. The rabbi gave me the name and address of a woman that I had met some years earlier but did not know that well. I heard that she suffered from multiple sclerosis which became extremely complicated after she gave birth to her only daughter. She found it difficult to leave her house as she suffered from intense migraines.
I walked to her house after shul services concluded. I knocked on the front door and heard a voice yell from upstairs that I should come in. She was home alone as her husband and daughter prayed at a different synagogue that ended later than my shul. Upon entering the home I saw that the house was going through major renovations. She called for me to go upstairs, so I moved past the various building materials and climbed the steps to the bedroom.
The woman was fully dressed in everyday clothes, sitting upright in her bed under her covers. I had the sense that she had been in that same position for a very long time. On the covers was essentially everything one could imagine: books; newspapers; food; tissues; a dog…. The scene was not of a woman with a cold, but of someone who was home-bound. When I wished her a happy new year and asked how she was doing, she replied that her migraines were incessant and not improving. She and her husband decided it was time to renovate the garage and convert it into a bedroom to make it easier for her. This young woman, who was not even 40, was creating a first floor suite not for parents or in-laws, but for herself.
I handed her the machzor and took the shofar in my hands. As I put the shofar to my lips it occurred to me that I was in an impossible situation: how was I going to blow the shofar standing right next to a woman whose migraines were so intense that she could not even stand or leave her bed? I attempted to blow as softly as possible that the sound was barely audible. She adjusted herself in bed and whispered “it’s OK – I want to hear the shofar,” and smiled.
I had never met a person who had such a debilitating illness that noise prevented them from taking a step. Yet despite the constant pain, here was this woman requesting that I blow a horn at the edge of her bed! I tried to blow slightly louder to modest success. She again assured me that it was okay.
So I blew.
First with eyes staring into the distance, and then looking at her, I blew the shofar clearly and loudly. My lips and lungs automatically ran through the pace of tikya-shevarim-truah-tikya, while my mind thought about rabbis who commented that the sound of the shofar was meant to resemble crying. But the call of the shofar that day did not cause this woman to cry, but brought her comfort.
I had come to help someone fulfill a mitzvah of hearing the shofar, and left with a sense of marvel at a woman who chose to bring a life into this world at a tremendous personal cost, and further marveled at her desire to seek out and engage so fully into Judaism, even when the pain was so dear.
A few years later my family was back in our community for Rosh Hashanah (one has to visit the in-laws and parents after all). I once again offered my services of blowing shofar for anyone who could not attend services in shul. To my surprise, the rabbi asked if I would blow for some Jews who were in a nearby hospital that treats mental disorders. I did not mind the long walk to the facility even though it meant I would be home quite late for lunch; my concern was much more basic and childish: fear. I was fortunate to have never been in a psychiatric ward and have a deep childish fear of even visiting ordinary hospitals. But how could I refuse? I told my wife that she should have lunch without me and went on my way.
While the rabbi warned me about the security at the hospital, I nevertheless tensed every time I was buzzed through another set of locked doors as I worked my way through the large building complex. I was ultimately led to a medium-sized waiting room where a woman of perhaps 20 or so sat with her parents in fine clothing. I attempted to make small conversation and only the parents engaged. I handed the father the machzor for them to recite the prayer on the shofar blowing. The three of them stood up, each parent holding a hand of their daughter as they waited for me to begin.
Blowing before an entire synagogue brings its own considerations and nervousness. However, my feelings at that moment passed nervousness towards discomfort. I was nervous about my surroundings; edgy about what affect blowing a shofar in a mental hospital might have on people on the floor. My lips were tight and the sound barely came out. The family didn’t seem to notice. They waited. Patiently. After some time, I found some calm and began to blow.
As the first tkiyah came out from the shofar, my fears became realized. The girl began to cry uncontrollably and tears flowed from both eyes like a waterfall. Her mother holding her right hand did not move and continued to stare at the floor. Her father on her left, continued to stare directly at me. Neither one moved or sought to calm their crying daughter. I stopped blowing and pulled the shofar from my lips.
The father told me it was okay and that I should keep going. I do not know what kind of expression I wore, and covered my mouth with my left hand and returned the shofar to the right corner of my mouth and continued to blow 40 blasts.
The woman’s tears did not stop and the parents’ positions and expressions did not change. However, my mind raced to my participation in an intimate moment. Was the sound of the shofar making the woman cry? Did it cause her to reflect on why she was in this facility? Did it make her think and pray to God for a better year? And what about the parents? Why was the father fixed on staring at me and the shofar – were we tools in her cure? Were the mother’s thoughts on her daughter, on Rosh Hashanah, on her own life? I tried to stop examining these strangers at a vulnerable moment, and focus on the sound of shofar. My only role was to be an agent for the sound which may help each of them in some way.
In just a few months, my father will turn 80 years old. In the Jewish book Pirkei Avot, it says that “eighty [years old] is for power.” In Hebrew, the number 80 is represented as a pei, which means “mouth”. Thank God, my father at 80 still has the power to bring the shofar to his lips each day of Elul and Rosh Hashanah to blow magnificently. He has passed the talent down, having taught my son how to blow shofar for his bar mitzvah just a few years ago.
This year, I am off duty from blowing shofar. I will be lucky to watch my father on the bimah surrounded by a community that he loves along with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The sound of his shofar will touch me beyond a note or the symbolism of the holy day. The sound will trigger memories of people who have long since passed away for whom my father and I visited; people who extended themselves in amazing ways for their families; and people who were deeply touched by the shofar blasts in ways I cannot fathom. For me, the sound has become an amalgam of life and death; physical sickness and determination; mental illness and hope; family and friends; and our responsibilities and roles in our community.
May we all be touched by the sound of the shofar in meaningful ways. All the best for a happy and healthy year.
Related First One Through article:
Shabbat Hagadol at the Third Hurva Synagogue, 2010
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