by Moshe Dann (September 2013)
Mendel the shofar-blower was a loser, a nebbech, a shlep. Neither learned nor successful, a man of no special talents or features, you could tell by his clothes he had no taste. Tall, thin with a scraggly beard, his rumpled pants and mismatched jacket hung on him like a scarecrow’s rags. At middle age, with no family and few friends it seemed that he’d always been that way. Yet, once a year, on Rosh Hashanah, he stood in front of the congregation with his shofar to open the ears of the Almighty.
Why he was chosen for this honor was a mystery and yet every year, at the beginning of Elul, Rabbi Rosenstein approached him with a worn smile, slapped him heartily on the back, a greeting he never received at any other time, and said confidently, “Well, Mendel, I guess we’ll hear you blow shofar for us on the Holidays.” Mendel heaved his shoulders, shook his head and sighed, “Why me?”
Mendel cleaned the shul, tended its elderly and sick members and sometimes taught in the local religious school, or rather was a subject of ridicule since, even after years of service, he had no permanent position. Having barely graduated from high school, he'd read books in the town library and never considered going to college. “Too far away,” he excused himself, content where he was. Not an official teacher, he substituted for someone who was sick, or on leave, not that he didn’t want to be a real full-time teacher. He accepted his place and the students knew it. When he walked into their classroom it took only a few moments before battle lines were drawn. Standing in front of the class he tried to ignore the general anarchy that fumed around him. When the children laughed at him he tried to laugh with them. When they played tricks on him, he made the best of it. Discipline was not his strong point; he could hardly do that for himself. It was, he told himself, the best he could do.
Married when he was young, his wife had left him and taken their son with her. “I’m not happy,” she’d said bluntly, simply; she didn’t need more reasons. Her father, a prominent figure in the community who had opposed their marriage from the beginning was insistent. “Give her a divorce – now!” he demanded, shaking his finger at him. “Or else!” Mendel did what he was told.
He tried to persuade her to stay, but she was more determined. Standing before three rabbis of the Bet Din, he uttered the formal phrases that severed his marriage and afterwards walked alone through the streets until dusk like the survivor of a shipwreck.
That night he went to say goodbye to his son. They clung to each other trying to find words that whirled like bits of paper in the wind as he hummed their favorite nigun.
He visited every week until a few months later he arrived to find the house empty. He tried to find them but no one seemed to know where they were. At first he thought they'd gone on a vacation. A neighbor said they were visiting relatives in another city. Letters of inquiry returned unopened.
Only his breath could reach his son, twisting through his shofar its piercing blasts released his soul. Who will live and who will die?
The week before Rosh Hashana, Mendel arose earlier than usual to offer special prayers at dawn, Slichot, to beg forgiveness. Crying out with other worshippers as the room filled with morning light, he wrapped his tallit tightly around his body. “Mercy,” he whispered.
The afternoon of Rosh Hashana, Mendel arrived early in shul, arranged the seats and placed special white curtains on the ark, a white cloth for the bima where the Torah was read and white covers for Torah scrolls. As the sky darkened, he stood in his usual place in the corner swaying to familiar prayers and melodies, and uneasiness.
Tara, the rabbi’s secretary, smiled when she noticed him. Unmarried and nine years younger than Mendel, they rarely spoke to each other, as if there was a silent pact of restraint between them.
When the service was over, Mendel returned to his apartment, made Kiddush and ate alone; boiled chicken and potatoes. He dreamed that Tara had invited him to visit, but he couldn’t find her house and became lost in narrow mazes of streets strewn with obstacles, intricate labyrinths that led to impasses. Hearing his son's voice far away, Mendel tried to shout, `I’m coming,’ but he could hardly whisper. The night sky, without a moon, an emptiness..
After the morning service on Rosh Hashana was over, it was time to hear the shofar. Standing with Rabbi Rosenstein before the Torah scrolls, he intoned
“From my prison I call out to You, God… don’t shut your ears when I cry out…teach me your judgments.”
He recited the blessing for one who blows shofar and tried to focus. Where is God’s voice? Can I hear Him?
"Are you ready?" Rosenstein asked; Mendel nodded, but was not convinced.
”Tekiah,” the rabbi called out solemnly. Mendel placed his shofar on his lips and blew, but nothing came out. He tried again and then looked helplessly at the rabbi.
“I’m sorry...” he mumbled.
“Mendel, what’s wrong?” Rosenstein whispered impatiently.
“I don’t know,” he stared at his shofar.
“What’s going on?” Shlomi, the gabbi, leaned on the bima. Pinchas narrowed his eyes, as if sighting along the barrel of a rifle.
“Try again,” the rabbi demanded, but Mendel produced nothing more than a squeak.
Mendel shook his head, “I can’t."
“I’ll do it!” Shlomi grabbed the shofar and tried to blow, but only painful scraping sounds emerged. The rabbi looked furiously at Mendel. Shlomi tried again, his face squeezed and red, but could do no better than before. What had been a stillness of anticipation from the congregation was turning into uncomfortable anxiety.
“Nu?” several people mooed impatiently. Rosenstein whispered a few directions to Shlomi and then faced the congregation.
“Kiddush, featuring sushi, will be served downstairs," he announced solemnly as if this had been carefully rehearsed, "sponsored by the Lavander family in honor of their daughter's visit from India and their son's belated bar mitzvah in Peru. Blowing of the shofar will take place thereafter.”
Rosenstein pulled Mendel's arm. “What’s going on?” he asked, irritated by the sudden breakdown.
“I don’t know,” Mendel groped his way through doubt and confusion smelling the rabbi's heavily scented cologne. “I can’t do it... I feel like a fake. Get someone else,” he begged, stepping back.
“How? It’s difficult now… we’re counting on you,” Rosenstein tried to sound encouraging. Mendel put his hands to his face.
“Rabbi, please” he pleaded, “Let me alone. I can’t ...” Visibly upset, Rosenstein was resigned to this unexpected turn of events.
“Alright,” he shrugged, “I’ll try to find a substitute,” and dispatched several men through the neighborhood to ask for help.
By the time the congregation reassembled, Rosenstein stood smiling hopefully with Leibel and Shimi, two shofar-blowers from other shuls, waiting at his side. Looking around with self-assurance, he nodded to the scowling president.
“Tekiah,” he called out, as the shul fell into uneasy silence. Leibel raised his shofar and blew as hard as he could, but produced nothing. The rabbi’s eyes flickered with panic. Shimi tried, but he too was unsuccessful.
“A demon,” Leibel whispered, looking around, his voice shaking.
“In this shul,” Shimi said, closing his eyes and raising his face, “we can’t help you.” Wrapping their talisim around their shoulders they hurried out through the bewildered congregation.
“Dear friends,” the rabbi spoke slowly, “I suggest that we have a short silent meditation and then continue our services. We’ll find a way,” he added in a deeply passionate voice.
Mendel removed his tallit and walked to the bathroom. The sweet smell of air freshener tickled. He sneezed, wiped his nose and stared at the open toilet. Odors of life, he thought, and anti-life, mixing and flushing. There was a knock on the door. Mendel didn’t answer.
“Mendel,” he heard his name, “are you in there?” It sounded like children playing hide-and-seek.
“Who is it? What do you want?” Mendel asked.
“It’s Tara. Are you okay? Are you finished? “
“I’m trying," he answered. "Please leave me alone.”
“Trying?“ she echoed. “Mendel,” she began again after an exasperated pause, “Mendel, we need you. We’re stuck.”
“I’m also stuck,” he sighed, feeling cold porcelain with his forehead.
“Do you want a laxative?” she asked.
“No, not that kind of stuck.”
“Mendele dear, we’re all stuck. We all feel that way when we’re honest with ourselves.” The congregation began singing a prayer to the tune of 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore.'
“I can’t do it,” Mendel stopped her. “I feel like a fraud ...”
“It’s Rosh Hashana. We have possibilities ... and we make mistakes… We don’t pray because we are whole, but because we are broken. Isn’t that enough?”
“No! It doesn’t change anything. Forgiveness only lasts until the next time, ‘another disaster waiting to happen.’” He stopped. “And God, well, I have issues with Him …”
“That's life; we’re in the world to help each other. We need each other, and now we need you. It doesn’t matter what you think, or believe, or don’t believe. We’re all stuck, inadequate, but you make the best of it. God can wait; we can’t.”
The toilet flushed; a sharp click of the lock and Mendel opened the door.
“Tara,” he said softly, “give me a hug.” They grasped each other as if they were about to fall, or dance.
“I believe in you,” she squeezed his hand. Around the corner the rabbi stood alone in the hallway. When he saw Mendel he rushed up to him.
“Nu,” he said raising his heavy eyebrows, “you’ll try again?” He waited. “For us; for you,” he added, anxious to close the deal. “Mendele,” Rosenstein put his arm around him as they walked towards the sanctuary, “I must tell you something; I can’t hold it inside any longer. Mendele, please, forgive me.”
“What for?” Mendel asked
“It was me,” the rabbi whispered.
“What are you talking about? What do you mean?”
“Your Ex, a long time ago she came to me. She was desperately in love with another man, even before she met you. He'd refused to marry her and although she married you, she couldn’t forget him. She wanted to follow him. When she told me the story, I suggested that she leave you and after the divorce she did. I don’t know where she is. I felt responsible, in some way, perhaps if I had tried...But that’s not all. She called several months ago and wanted to be in touch with you. I told her that you were happier without her. She never called back.”
Mendel closed his eyes and then took Rosenstein's hand as they walked slowly towards the waiting congregation. Standing together next to the covered Torah scrolls, Mendel asked, “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, hesitantly. “No,” he repeated again, “that’s not all. The truth is, you ... your crazy ideas....your way of life… it’s upsetsetting … ” he breathed heavily.”I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” Mendel said simply. The rabbi’s fingers curled around Mendel’s.
Pinchas slammed his hand on the bima. “God’s Will!" he bellowed.
“How dare you,” Rosenstein sputtered and lunged towards Pinchas.
“The truth...” Pinchas screamed, raising his hands in the air.
“Stop!" shouted Shlomi, prying Pinchas and the rabbi apart. “Enough. It’s Rosh Hashana!”
“Truth!” Pinchas straightened his black velvet skull cap. “The truth,” he repeated, red-faced, as if he was about to burst. “We only know what we want to know and we call that `truth.’ It’s lies, nothing but lies,” he shook his fist in the air.
“Please, please,” Rosenstein pleaded and in his most serious voice exclaimed, “Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.”
“What’s that?” Pinchas asked.
“Who are forgiven their many sins? Those who have loved too much,” the rabbi answered. “I learned it from my therapist. He’s a Jungian. He used to be a classics scholar and jazz musician.” Rosenstein turned to Mendel. “Are you ready? Let’s begin.”
“Tekiah,” A sharp shrill edge pierced the silence.
“Shevarim.” Three short broken sounds split the air.
“Teruah.” Exploding silence, shattering into fragile splinters of light.
Mendel felt his head spinning. A hundred jagged sounds. Sisera’s mother wailing for her son.
“Tekiah Gadolah.” A final long howl, God, birthing the world.
“Mendel!” Rosenstein screamed as Mendel crumpled to the floor.
Mendel's eyes fluttered. He stared at the people around him and tried to get up. Tara rushed to him.
"I got her phone number," she whispered. "I know where she is."
"What number? Who?"
"Your ex. When she called the office, I traced the number. We'll find your son. Come, let’s take a walk outside.“ Tara helped him up and they headed toward the door.
"Like a honeymoon," Rosenstein exclaimed, as the chazzan led a hymn to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda."
"Today is the birthday of the world…"
“Who’ll blow shofar tomorrow?” Rosenstein called to Mendel as they left.
“I don’t know. ‘God will provide,’” he said, as holy vessels containing God’s name crashed around him and gigantic white clouds billowed like Leviathans swimming across the translucent sky.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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