In more than six years in Israel, you can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken a spiritual/t’filah leadership role in any congregation. Twice, I’ve chanted my bar mitzvah haftarah. Another was a significantly botched attempt to read one short aliyah of Torah. That’s it.
This year, I’m a ba’al tokeiah for Rosh Hashanah, sounding the shofar 100 times for the congregation.
I have several shy streaks that I attempt hide. One is an aversion to leading services — being an emissary of prayer — when both technical details are key and congregational expectations are high. This might sound strange to those who’ve hosted me as a Liturgist/Scholar-in-Residence where I’ve confidently taken the bimah to help create the prayer experience. Congregations asking me to lead their services — rather than read my liturgy as part of worship — receive my gentle demur away from taking the central sheliach tzibur (emissary of the community) role.
Hearing the Shofar is a central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah, which makes the ba’al tokeiah central to the mitzvah of others. There are technical details, such as the number of blasts in each note, the length of each note, when to breathe. There are two piyyutim to chant. Blowing shofar would seem to be the antithesis of my comfort zone for leading prayer. It is, except for this…
In my writing — and in facilitating men’s work for ManKind Project — I strive to become a hollow bone, the conduit through which others might find a sense of the Divine or a bit of healing. In a sense, the ba’al tokeiah is the wind in the hollow bone, the breath that brings out the kolot shofar, the voices of the shofar that are already resident in the horn itself, already resident in the heavens, already resident in our hearts.
Yes, I’m nervous about messing it up. Many (if not all) Jews coming to services have an idea of what the shofar should sound like.
“Nervous is good,” said a friend who’s been a ba’al tokeiah for years said. He gently hinted that, as I blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah for the first time in Israel, I might touch something deep and unexpected inside myself as the sounds emerge from the horn and reverberate through my body.
The shofar I’ll use was a gift that I brought with me from the US on making aliyah, a gift from the son and widow of one of my dearest friends.
From the moment we met, my friend Larry z”l and I were so close that people would mistake us for childhood companions or relatives. In truth, knew him for only 18 months before he died of brain cancer. When Larry passed away I gave my shofar to his son, Gideon. That instrument was a bar mitzvah gift to me from the senior Jewish educator at my synagogue, Dr. Louis Katzoff z”l. Just as that shofar was meant to encourage me to keep faith with the Jewish people, I passed it along to Gideon as a sign of hope and connection to our people. A year later, Gideon and his mother Deb gave me a shofar as a thank you. That’s the shofar I’ll use here in Israel.
May the sound of the shofar — the deep cry of yearning within us — call us all back to faith, hope and t’shuva. May any failure I make in sounding the shofar be attributed only to me, not my congregation nor to Klal Yisroel.