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The Sound of the Silent Shofar

The Sound of the Silent Shofar


Editor's note: This article was written shortly before Rosh Hashanah 5767 (2006), when the 1st day of the holiday coincided with Shabbat.

This year, as we enter the portals of our respective synagogues on the first day of the new Jewish year, we will wait in vain to hear the inspiring blast of the shofar. The cantor will chant, the rabbi will sermonize, and the congregation will join in loving praise of G‑d and our people. But the shofar—the ram's horn whose piercing notes traditionally signify the high point of the Rosh Hashanah service—will remain still.

The Talmud relates in the name of the great sage Rabbah that when the New Year coincides with Shabbat, the day of rest, our weekly dose of spiritual respite supersedes the pageantry and the magnitude of the shofar’s call.

OK, that’s the law; but where is the inspiration? Where is the majesty? How can the routine Shabbat observance replace the sound of the ram’s horn heard at Sinai? How will we crown G‑d king of the universe? How will we get a foretaste of the "great shofar" that will usher in the time of Moshiach? How can we hear a silent shofar?

OK, that’s the law; but where is the inspiration? Where is the majesty? I recently found the answer in a most unlikely setting. Last week, I attended a Bar Mitzvah that will stay etched in my memory forever. As a community rabbi, I attend many life cycle events. Each in its own way is memorable and significant. But attending the Bar Mitzvah of Shmuel Dovid E., an autistic child with cognitive delays, was difficult. Not for the child or for the family, but for us, the guests.

Don't get me wrong. The parents have their hands full. For years Shmuel Dovid could hardly utter a word or communicate his basic needs. But they handled it. And in handling it, the family, the Bar Mitzvah boy, the inner circle of professionals and support staff—they are blessed with unusual insight that goes beyond the superficial and the external. They are privy to a dimension of life that we can only philosophize about. They can look directly into the soul of this beautiful child of G‑d and see a truly stunning work of creation. They nurtured Shmuel Dovid, lovingly and consistently, to achieve his Bar Mitzvah goals.

We the outsiders could only hope to observe, to act natural, to say the right things, and to pretend that all is normal and average and mundane.

They are privy to a dimension of life that we can only philosophize about At the celebration, Shmuel Dovid’s father got up to thank the community, the Keshet school, the friends, relatives, and personnel who have walked hand in hand with the E. family at each and every step of this incredible journey.

And then Mr. E. told a story.

Thirty years ago he encountered a Jewish woman in Seattle who told him about her immigrant father coming to Winnipeg, Canada in the very difficult years of the depression. He had brought with him from the European shtetl a work ethic that nothing was too hard or demeaning. And so, when the only job available to him in this newfound land of opportunity was to be a simple milk man, he accepted the job with zeal. There was only one problem. He also brought with him from Europe his heritage and traditions. The job required he work on Shabbat. He couldn't, he wouldn't.

So each and every week as he pooled together his meager wages that barely covered his family's basic needs, he allocated the money necessary to hire a non-Jew to cover for him on Saturdays. It wasn’t cheap, he had to pay his stand-in double the daily rate, but there was no other option, he would not disappoint the Sabbath queen.

Every Friday, as the Jewish immigrant went through this financial ritual, he would repeat to his children the following chant: "If the children of Israel keep the Shabbat—the Shabbat will keep the children of Israel."

There was only one problem. The job required he work on Shabbat. He couldn't, he wouldn't. Years later this story took on great significance in the life of the E. family. Things were getting tougher. Shmuel Dovid's severely limited ability to communicate was triggering uncontrolled and unpredictable behavior. Eighteen months before their son’s thirteenth birthday, planning a Bar Mitzvah seemed totally impossible. But even more frightening was the realization that living at home was becoming more and more difficult for Shmuel Dovid and for his family.

As they contemplated the future, the possibility of a group home for their beloved child, was looming as an uncomfortable but perhaps necessary option. It would bring some long forgotten calm to their home, but what of Shmuel Dovid? Would this be of benefit to him? Then came the religious questions. There was no organized facility in the area that provided Kosher food and a Shabbat environment.

Mr. and Mrs. E. went to their rabbi to discuss the latest challenge. What was the Jewish law? Could they even consider a setting for their precious son that had no provisions for kosher or Shabbat? Was it permissible? What was their Judaic/parental responsibility in this case?

The rabbi was clear. For a child who was unaware of the significance of basic Jewish laws, it would be halachically sanctioned to outplace him, even if the group home could not provide for elementary Jewish practices.

Mr. and Mrs. E. left the rabbi’s office with the clarity they had sought. Shmuel Dovid would stay home.

They left the rabbi’s office with the clarity they had sought. Shmuel Dovid would stay home. True, his scope of knowledge was limited. His comprehension of things outside his immediate reach was restricted. But he did know of Shabbat. What he did not know was Saturday. His face would shine as his mother lit the Shabbat candles. He anxiously awaited his turn to drink from his father’s kiddush cup on Friday nights. He would drum his fingers and sing along—off tune—as the family broke out in chassidic song. Shmuel Dovid knew of Shabbat and he even knew of kosher, carefully examining a package for its kosher symbol and recognizing the difference between meat and dairy. Yes, Shmuel Dovid would stay home.

The decision was made and the next eighteen months were a turning point. Together they struggled, they dared, they dreamt, they planned, and they succeeded.

When the big day arrived, Shmuel Dovid was called to the Torah, to make the blessings and take his rightful place among those of all generations past. He lovingly cared for his new pair of tefillin and learned to wrap them each weekday morning just as his father and brothers do. He got his own suit and black hat, like all the other Yeshiva boys, and he brought to the home a new calm that they hadn’t felt in a long time. That day he became a "man."

"If the children of Israel keep the Shabbat—the Shabbat will keep the children of Israel."

When Mr. E. finished his story there was not a dry eye in the Shul. Every heart was moved. Each of us sat in awe of this amazing boy, this awesome family, our wonderful traditions, and our treasured Shabbat.

So this year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah when the shofar is silent, let us make sure to listen very carefully. We can hear the whisper of generations; we can heed the secret of our survival. We can contemplate of those who have sacrificed and of those who have reaped the benefits of our faith.

We can close our eyes and see our mother’s Shabbat candles and taste our zayde’s sweet wine. We can reach deeply into the age-old wisdom of the weekly Torah message. And we can resolve to emulate the simple devotion and the amazing fortitude of Shmuel Dovid E.

This Rosh Hashanah, listen carefully to the resounding sound of the silent shofar. It calls us to embrace the Shabbat queen.

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, of blessed memory, was the regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, and President of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous Shanghai, China September 2, 2013

wow just wow! This story is one of courage: an amazing story of courage. Remember how quiet ur house would be if it didn't have Shmuel Dovid in it, Family E. Too quiet! Reply

Jason S indian harbour beach, fl October 2, 2011

This puts many of my struggles, such as asking for Yom Kippur off from a boss who has never heard of it, in perspective. Reply

Debra Z. Griffith lakehurst, NJ via September 22, 2006

Silent Shofar This story clearly demonstrates that the parents of Shmuel Dovid knew that their son is a gift from Almighty God and in caring for their son they honored God... While Shmuel Dovid may have physical limitations, seen by the natural eye, the Spirit of God in him coupled with the parent's faith in God empowered their son to exercise his franchise... Reply

Rivkah Katz Alpharetta, GA September 22, 2006

thanks Thank you for this wonderful, warm story. I am forever grateful to my Grandparents, Ruchel and Shmuel, for sacrificing family, comfort and their lives to come to America for freedom. Reply

Richard Glass Brooklyn, NY September 21, 2006

finding a new yera's resolution Thanks for this great article. I think I've found my New Year's resolution.
I always take Shabbos a little for granted. Always emphasziing the restrictions instead of the beauty.
Shmuel Dovid & his family are true heroes. I hope to think of them every Shabbos.
Shana Tova Reply

Aviva Ernst Maale Levona, Israel September 20, 2006

The Silent Shofar Rabbi Moskowitz has painted such a clear picture of Shmuel's bar mitzvah, I feel as if I was there. Thank you for allowing me to share in the simcha. Reply

Anonymous usa September 18, 2006

That is a beautiful story Reply

Edith Brown Silver Spring, MD via September 17, 2006

The Sound of the Silent Shofar Keeping Shabbat should be easy. We just pray and rest. It is not so easy when one was raised in a conservative home. As an adult, trying to learn the laws of the Torah can be quite a challenge. Am I really a more precious Jew if I follow all the laws of the Torah?

I'm glad Shmuel Dovid will remain home with his family. I pray the peace Shmuel Dovid found on his Bar Mitzvah day will continue. I pray for his parents on the days frustration may overwhelm them and they wish to throw their hands up in the air - do so. Then when you're done, take a deep breath, hug one another tightly and remember if Shmuel Dovid wasn't there - your house would be too quiet.

One special dream I have had for years is to learn Hebrew. Shmuel Dovid has given me the encouragement I have secretly longed for. Reply

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