This Thursday and Friday, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. And though there are a slew of customs and commandments associated with the holiday, there’s one that stands above all the rest: the commandment to hear the blowing of the shofar, the simple bugle made from a hollowed-out ram’s horn. The shofar’s blast is a bracing sound, a sort of primal cry, and it’s meant to ‘wake up’ the soul, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of judgment, ten days later.
If you can play the trumpet, you can play the shofar. So, as in a handful of prior years past, I was asked to be the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar blower, at this year’s Rosh Hashanah services.
But I was also asked to come in every morning for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew month of Elul, to play the shofar then, too. While hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah itself is a commandment, doing so for the month leading up is simply a custom – albeit one that’s stood for thousands of years. Essentially, it’s meant to be a sort of warm-up lap for the main new year’s day event, a way to pre-awaken the soul.
I agreed to help out. So, for the past month, early every morning, I found myself standing in the synagogue sanctuary, shofar in hand. It was, without a doubt, the longest stretch of morning prayer attendance I had ever clocked (or considered) in my life.
By the end of the month, I thought I’d be happy to drop that responsibility from my already full morning routine. But I found myself yesterday evening, as I played the final shofar blasts that brought the Rosh Hashanah service to a close, thinking it now seemed slightly strange that I didn’t need to attend this coming week.
After the service, helping to clean up, I ended up thumbing through a book of Jewish writings, and came across a story I knew well about Rabbi Akiva:
Despite eventually becoming one of the super-stars of the Talmud, by age 40, Akiva was still illiterate. Then, one day, as he stood near the mouth of a well, he noticed a hollowed out stone that was used to hold drawn water. How had it been hollowed out, he wondered aloud. From water falling on the stone, day after day, he was told. Which led Akiva to famously reason, “if water can wear away a hard stone, then surely the words of the Torah can carve a way into my heart.” That set him on his late-life learning path, on the way to eventual greatness.
But what I hadn’t seen before was a response to that story, from Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 18th century: “The waters carved the stone only because it fell drop after drop, year after year, without pause. Had the accumulated water all poured down at once in a powerful stream, it would have slipped off the rock without leaving a trace.”
As I’ve written about before, I’m increasingly convinced that anything worth doing is worth doing every day. So, with my shofar experience fresh in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I might intregrate some kind of daily Jewish practice into my morning routine (even if it’s one that doesn’t involve schlepping to the synagogue every day).
More broadly, between now and Yom Kippur, I’ve resolved to think about my daily practices and habits in general. About the kind of person I want to be, about what I want to have accomplished, by next Rosh Hashanah. And, working backwards from those questions, about the small things I need to do, every single day throughout the whole year, to make it happen.
So: shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to you all. May you grow through it, day by day.