Shofar notes...

...or how I learned to stop worrying and love this ancient instrument.

bratslav believer 311 (photo credit: AP)
bratslav believer 311
(photo credit: AP)
The short ram’s horn and the long twisted one have both been favorites of mine since I first heard the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1945.
Sixty-five years have passed since those blasts woke me up – their real function. One of my close friends, Ray, now a rabbi for many years, had a unique way with that instrument.
When we were at summer camp together in our college years, he would retreat into the forest near the bunks every morning, except Shabbat. He went far enough away so you could not hear him unless you were aware that he was out there. He was doing his thing.
His soundings of the shofar were so accurate that on a few occasions he had to scurry back to the cabins chased by various types of animals.
He told us, with a smile on his face, that he once heard a bear growling, so he quickly changed his tune to “When the Saints Go Marching In” and ran.
“David,” Ray once asked, “why don’t you blow the shofar? As long as you have one with which you feel comfortable, there is no way that you cannot become adept with our people’s ancient instrument.”
“Ray, you know that I am not very good musically. I can daven okay because my father and zaydie taught me, but I have always been afraid of the shofar. With you it is simple and easy – wish I had your ability.”
“David, please realize that you possess latent talents which you have not begun to use. You will see – your day will come.”
When advanced education carried me to New York in the early 1960s, who should be there at the same school but my friend Ray. He had not forgotten the shofar challenge. We rode on the subway to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where most of the Jewish stores in that borough were located.
“David, I used to frequent this area when I was in high school, but I have not been here for a number of years. Some of the stores, I am sure, are ones which I will recognize.”
After trying a few different establishments, we focused on one. We came just at the right time – a few weeks before the High Holy Days when students, part-time cantors and others sought to purchase a shofar which they could blow easily. Ray looked at me, and with great confidence said, “We will not leave this store until you have your own personal ram’s horn which you can sound with authority. I know that all we have to do is to pick through some shofarot until you can blow one of them.”
I was carried along by his confidence.
Together we looked into the boxes of shofarot.
When I picked out one in which the blowing hole was too big – he made me put it back. He wanted to help me find the one suitable for me. The store was packed. Only men were present.
My only previous attempt at playing a musical instrument had been the violin when I was in elementary school in Atlanta. Receiving very little instruction at school, no private tutoring, my only conquest was “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I played with the school orchestra in one concert, but the director informed me and a few others not to make too much “noise.”
THAT VIOLIN HAD quite a life. Bought by my father from an Atlanta pawnbroker, it traveled to cousins in New Orleans, St. Louis and New York. They fiddled much better than I. This was running through my mind as I tried to find a shofar. “The key to sounding this ancient instrument,” Ray stressed, “is to purse your lips in such a way that a steady stream of air enters the blowing hole of the shofar.” There were four or five which I tested with Ray’s benevolent counsel. With two of them I could not get a sound. I felt like I was trying to blow my brains out – literally.
With another one I finally heard the sound coming forward and working its way out into the atmosphere. Maybe the fourth or fifth one was the shofar which I chose. Far from perfection at least I felt that I was in control and not the instrument. That was it – $30 was the cost – my new possession. From that time forward my shofar life was set. For the High Holy Days in 1960 I went to a small community in Maryland on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay to conduct all the services, to read the Torah, to speak and to blow the shofar. I had practiced during the summer with my grandfather, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, who had taught me how to read the Torah with the High Holy Day nigun. He also reviewed all the davening with me trying to make sure that I would do my best.
What a test that first Yamim Noraim was.
The shul in Maryland was my initial experience in leading an adult service. In Boy Scout camp, in summer camp, in my youth organization, I had been the ba’al tefila. Never everything, a Kol Bo. Of course, I did not tell anyone that this was my first such outing. Evaluating myself a half century later, I feel the davening and the Torah reading were excellent.
The sermons were pretty good – written with the help of my uncle, a rabbi in New York.
With the shofar blowing, the beginning was mediocre but once I got into it, that sound was quite good, and the tekia gedola – the big note – I held almost ten seconds.”
IN THE EARLY 1970s I was a rabbi in Wilmington, Delaware. One pre-High Holy Day season, when the shofar is sounded at daily morning tefilot in the month of Elul, it fell upon the cantor and me to rotate being ba’al tekia at the morning services because the regular shofar blower, a volunteer, had to go to work early.
The cantor and I worked out an easy system of who would take responsibility each day.
One morning when I arrived for the minyan, the early bird minyanaires, who came before the davening to get a cup of coffee, informed me that the synagogue had been burglarized. “Rabbi, you know that we get here pretty early,” one of them said. “Out here on the lawn near the coffee room, there was an air conditioner. Guess the thieves took it out of the window but they could not carry it away. Maybe they heard some noise and got scared. Have not heard about a synagogue being robbed in a long time. Guess anything is possible. There was some spare change in the coffee room, which I think may have been taken.”
After listening to their report, I walked through the downstairs hall climbing the stairs to reach my office. The office door had been forced open – guess the thieves figured something special was inside. Entering I saw that many of my books and papers had been thrown on the floor – searching for buried treasure. Looking around the office more closely, I realized that my typewriter, a small briefcase and my tape recorder were gone.
Then something caught my eye, my shofar, in daily use in Elul, was normally left on a shelf filled with books. The shofar had been picked up by that late-night visitor and placed on my desk. It did not look damaged so I took it down to the chapel where the services were held. At the end of the morning minyan, my moment had arrived. I stood up, put the shofar to my lips, but for the life of me, as hard as I tried, I could not get a sound out of it. Well, I said to those present that morning, can you imagine, those thieves have stolen the notes of my shofar. They all agreed.
The introduction to my sermon that year ran as follows. “Too many of our fellow Jews, in this day and age, have forgotten about their Jewish distinctiveness. They have permitted the notes of the shofar and their meaning to be stolen away from them. One of the key tasks of the shofar is to arouse spiritual awe.
The prophet Amos told us ‘Shall the shofar be blown in the city and the people not tremble?’ Alas, this is our problem. The shofar is being placed to the figurative lips of society but no sound is forthcoming. The tekia calling us to take action – to right the wrongs cannot be heard. The shevarim – composed of three notes reminds us that the world stands on Torah, Avoda – service to God, Gemilut Hasadim – deeds of loving kindness. We listen but there is nothing. The terua is the call to war against evil and the tragedies of society. Sadly, those nine staccato notes cannot be found. Where is the tekia gedola – that great extended note which brings peace, tranquility and righteousness to the world? “Yes, the shofar sounds must be reinserted in this ancient instrument and into our lives so we will hear them and stride forward observing with fervor God’s mitzvot.”