Was it something Rabbi Ezray said? Did his words unlock a piece of unprocessed grief within me? Did his healing prayer trigger something, or was it just some fleeting holiday nostalgia passing through? I don't know if it was any of these things or maybe all of them, but suddenly I sat there softly weeping.
My sobbing was so gentle I couldn't be sure if Debbie, sitting right next to me, was even aware. It wasn't like last year when sounding the shofar was such a deeply moving experience that when I descended the bimah and arrived back at my seat a deep release came through as tears. I was able to control the sound of my crying that morning—less so the trembling of my body. This morning was different. The weeping was more like a loving hand softly stirring a child from slumber. Moreover, I had not yet sounded the horn.
I really didn't want to draw attention to my unexpected emotional state. With my index finger I brushed aside a few tears, but when I began to sniffle I had to ask Debbie for a tissue. She had none, nor did Karen next to her. Just about then, Debbie felt the need to leave the sanctuary. She had sat there as long as she could knowing that our 16-month grandson was nearby. She said she was going to check in on the children service and would then bring me a tissue.
Shortly after Debbie returned, the rabbi introduced our new Temple educator, Rabbi Ilana, to instruct the congregation on the meaning of the shofar. She gave a stirring description of the terror that overcame people at the sound of wailing war alarms when she was living in Israel under the threat of Saddam Hussein's chemical rocket attacks. She likened her experience to the response that the shofar must have elicited in ancient times. I had just spent a month preparing my lip and my soul for sounding the shofar. I had also spent the morning in prayer and meditation further readying myself for this solemn obligation. I hadn't imagined that there was more that I could do in this regard. Nonetheless, Rabbi llana's words added another level of inspiration.
Rabbi Ezray called on Debbie who then ascended the bimah and began her reading, “May the cry of the shofar shatter our complacency.” The congregation responded, “May the cry of the shofar penetrate our souls.” As they continued reading about the shofar’s cry, I stood at Debbie’s side holding the smooth ram’s horn close to me, focusing on my imminent task. Instinctively I brought the instrument to my mouth and softly blew some warm air through it. In years past I might have looked out upon the congregation just to get a sense of how many seats were filled or to connect a little bit with the assembly. But this day I kept my gaze averted, my head down, breathing gently, connecting as best I could with the spirit that I hoped would come through the horn. Debbie concluded with, “May the cry of the shofar penetrate our hearts,” and the congregation replied, “May the cry of the shofar bring blessing to us, the people who hear its call.”
The rabbi then added a few words of instruction. He told the congregation, “Yesh and I talked about creating a moment between the blessings and the cry of the shofar just to prepare ourselves in a different way. Please stand."
My eyes were fixed on the prayer book before me. I waited till the sound of people standing up diminished before beginning to chant the Hebrew blessing praising God for making us holy through the commandments, in particular this one —hearing the sound of the shofar. Then I praised God for life itself, for sustaining us, and bringing us to this sacred moment. As I got to the familiar shehechiyanu phrase many joined in. They all sang, “Amen.”
The space of solemn stillness the rabbi had prescribed between the prayer and the shofar blast was short-lived.
A baby’s piercing cry shattered the silence, almost on cue, in tones remarkably reminiscent of the ram's horn. It brought immediate laughter to the entire congregation. Debbie bit her lip and turned away toward the ark. The rabbi said, "That is the perfect shofar!” I instinctively gave a thumbs-up sign recalling how decades ago I had heard another rabbi encourage his congregants who had babies present not to fear if they cried during Rosh Hashanah services because they all sounded like tiny shofars. Despite or maybe because of all of the kavannah — the spiritual focus — that I had developed in order to make the sacred sounds, I felt surprisingly comfortable and not the least bit distracted by this interruption. The rabbi and I were both smiling broadly. After a brief pause I shook my head, still grinning, and brought the horn back up to my lips awaiting the rabbi’s cue.
“T’kiah!” he chanted. Before I could finish inhaling the child’s perfect T’kiah notes again wailed across the sanctuary. This brought even more laughter, at which point Debbie turned to me exclaiming, "It would have to be Matan, too!" "Was that Matan? I replied incredulously. I hadn’t noticed our son bringing the baby in to hear me sound the horn.
Rabbi Ezray, always capable of making the best of any situation, stated, "That was perfectly timed. Let's try it again! By the way, whoever that baby is, don't worry about baby noise,” trying to console the as yet unidentified parents who no doubt were suffering some embarrassment at this point.
I put my hand on the rabbi’s shoulder and informed him, "That's my grandson!"
"Nice!" he responded, signaling his own thumbs-up sign and throwing his head back in deep laughter. Wanting to let the entire congregation in on the joke he pointed to the two of us and proclaimed, "It's their grandson!" By this time my son had taken our little "shofar" to the back of the sanctuary and calmed him to a point where they and everyone else could finally listen to the sound of the actual ram's horn.
Once again I shook my head in resignation, smiling, returning the horn to my lips. The rabbi had suggested that we prepare for the shofar in a "different way," but I don't think that this is what he had in mind. One more time he chanted the cue, “T’kiah!” This time I sounded the horn. “Sh’varim-t’ruah!” More blasts. “T’kiah!” One by one his calls came followed by the loud bleating sounds of the shofar. They were truly bleating in a manner that was unique. I don't think the vibrato I was hearing was induced by nervousness. I wasn't any more nervous than any other year. It seemed as if the sound started deep in my belly. It was nothing that I could control. By the time it came through my lips and out the horn it had a frightened edge to it, much like the alarm Rabbi Ilana had mentioned earlier.
I've sounded shofar for over fifty years. It took me decades to understand that it was never intended to be a performance, and that it was not about me, the Ba’al T’kiah — the one who sounds the shofar — or my prowess. I eventually learned that the shofar service is truly a prayer, that properly done it is less by me and more through me. There is no commandment to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The only commandment is to hear it. In recent years I have started to hear the sound almost as any other member of the congregation does. I was definitely hearing it this morning, and these were tones that I had never heard before. Debbie mentioned it when we got back to our seats, and later the rabbi also said that he heard a difference.
These events reminded me of a Chassidic tale—
There once was a rebbe who gave his Ba’al T’kiah a long list of instructions on how to deliver the perfect shofar blasts. The chassid studied them diligently. He even put the sheet of instructions in his pocket in order to study up to the last minute. On Rosh Hashanah morning the rebbe surreptitiously picked the pocket of the chassid depriving him of his prized instructions. When the chassid discovered the sheets were missing he wept with great fear and grief. Moments later when it was time to sound the horn his notes reached the highest place in heaven. The rebbe had planned this from the start, knowing that by cracking open the chassid’s heart the sounds would pour out from this deep place within.
Without such a plan in place, the cry of the shofar on this Rosh Hashanah morning was lifted by my tears and those of my sweet grandson. May our hearts ever be open to receive those plaintive notes, mitigated, as well, by sweet sounds of laughter.