For accountants, it’s April, for retailers, it’s December, and for shofar sounders, it’s Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashonah. And, in my capacity as a shofar sounder, a Ba’alat Tekiyah, it is my busy season. I say season because the shofar is not solely sounded in synagogues the first and second days of Rosh Hashonah to herald the beginning of the Jewish New Year, it is sounded for the entire month of Elul, to prepare those that hear it for the spiritual work ahead during the Days of Awe, better known as the High Holidays. The sounds of the shofar are ancient and stirring. It is said that its primal sound can banish the presence of evil, even Satan himself. Beyond those in view for the sounding of the shofar, its sound may reach the ears of anyone in range, for it is the act of hearing this sound during the month of Elul that is considered a mitzvah, or blessing, not producing the sound.
At this time of year, it is my practice to visit those who are home-bound, hospitalized or otherwise isolated or for whom financial circumstances make it impossible to afford tickets to attend synagogue holiday services. I have been been deeply moved by the visible impact on these listeners- the unresponsive Alzheimer’s patient for whom the shofar awakens a buried memory, the silent Parkinsons patient whose smile somehow betrays facial paralysis. I have entered hospital rooms of coma patients, and visited terminal patients who have returned home for hospice care; in several cases my visit to sound shofar was the last time I saw them alive. Standing, with family members nearby, at the bedside of one woman who had suffered a long, painful illness, I had the sense that the sound of the shofar allowed her to surrender to death. To give this gift of peace is in intimate honor.
My relationships, albeit brief, with those I visit during the month of Elul often provide a unique, deep, wordless connection. And, although I am entirely present at each of these visits, I experience a loss of self, yet not an emptiness. When I sound the shofar, whether standing before a congregation or by the bed of a frail patient, I become merged with the hollow horn through which the air and sound move and resonate. I have the sensation of connection and channeling a higher power. And I hope that I have been a vehicle, even if for a few moments, for just a bit of comfort for the length of my stay.