In Deuteronomy chapter 21, we are told that the parents of a wayward child can have the child stoned to death if “he does not listen to the voice of his father or his mother and does not obey them.” Much earlier, in Exodus chapter 24, when god and Moses give the children of Israel the choice of whether or not to accept the commandments, the people respond, “we will do and we will obey.”
So which is it? Do we listen first and then obey, or obey first and then worry about comprehension, as my parents would have certainly preferred?
This has become meaningful for me this year, because I decided I wanted to buy a new shofar for the High Holidays.
The last time I was in Jerusalem, 15 years ago, I bought a shofar. It was my first shofar, and every year since then I brought it with me to the end of Yom Kippur services to join in the mass sounding of the t’kiyah g’dolah. When I was packing this summer to return to Jerusalem, I decided not to bring my shofar with me; I was thinking that I wanted to get a new one anyway this year.
About two weeks ago I found a beautiful shofar, longer and more twisting than my old one, with a deep brown color and the beginnings of an interesting sound. I brought it home and started practicing, but once I was in my apartment, I couldn’t get a sound out of it. Nothing. I tried a second day, and still nothing. Finally, I looked inside the shofar to see if there was some kind of blockage… and I saw a large black spider waving its legs at me inside. Aaaagh! I boiled water and poured several gallons through to make sure I’d evicted the beast, but even then I couldn’t bring myself to put my mouth on that shofar again so soon.
What next? Ridiculously, I went and bought another shofar. Since I knew at this point that I’d be travelling for the holidays, I decided to go for something small. This also gave me the added bonus of being able to easily see inside, to ensure that this shofar was indeed vacant. I found a sweet, cream-colored shofar, which sounded absolutely gorgeous the minute I tried it. I brought it home, and continued to produce perfect t’kiyahs.
The next day, I got into a van and drove with several other students from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem up to a kibbutz in the northern Negev, where we’d be leading services for Rosh Hashana and the following shabbat. As we settled into our rooms, my roommate asked if she could try my shofar. I handed it over, she sounded it, and then announced that there was a crack on the side of the shofar through which air was escaping. I don’t know when the crack happened, but because of the crack, it was no longer a kosher shofar.
At first I was really very upset – I’ve been blowing the shofar every year for the last 15 years, and now that I’m actually spending the High Holidays in Israel I’m shofar-less? But the mitzvah is in listening to the shofar, not blowing it. The rabbis of the talmud were very clear that our obligation is to listen, and not necessarily to do it ourselves. Because frankly, if I’m blowing the shofar, no matter how much I’ve prepared my soul to be humble, there’s a little part of me that gloats over the sweet notes and groans over the duds. But this year I had no choice, so I listened. Those blasts pierced right through me, and no trace of ego was left where the sound had passed.
There are some times when we’re meant to listen, when too much “doing” prevents us from hearing the things we need to hear. And I needed to hear that shofar. So this year I can say “I will listen and I will obey,” even though I know that next year I’m hoping that it’s the other way around again.