My grandfather's shofar
I mentioned in the last blogpost that my childhood home had no Judaism in it. Nevertheless, my parents were meticulously honest, refined and disciplined people. My father, Yisrael Ber, alav hashalom, was a prosecuting attorney for Cook County, Illinois (he once prosecuted Al Capone and lost). Later, he was a municipal court judge in Chicago. My father was a marvel of discipline. He once confided to me that in the whole of his marriage to my mother, he never went to the refrigerator to see what’s inside, not once.
My mother would say to him, “Irwin, are you hungry?” And if he said yes, she would bring him something to eat. He also took great pride in the fact that never once in his life did he eat pizza. You had to be there.
Even without Judaism in the home, we had at least one spiritual treasure, my grandfather’s black shofar (ram’s horn). It was assessed by a shofar expert to be from Holland, and five hundred years old. And it was always on display in our home.
My grandfather’s shofar ended a seven year search. And it did it without even making a sound.
I was 35 years old and had been traipsing around the world for a little more than six years searching for G-d (like tens of thousands of others during the late sixties and early seventies). And I had just been to a four-day yoga conference in Vallejo, California, under the auspices of Swami Satchidananda, who was nicknamed “Swami Snatcha-da-money.”
I was never really into yoga. My knees could not handle it. And I steadfastly refused to strike a pose that was in obeisance to the snake god. May Hashem protect us.
Particularly loathsome to me was the practice of worshipping a yogi as god. (Gadzooks, man, have you gone stark raving mad?). But despite the idolatry and the mental and physical contortions, I felt there was spiritual power and wisdom in yoga. I now believe that yoga developed out of the wisdom that the sons of Abraham and Ketura brought to the Far East (Gen. 25:6). At that point in my search, I thought that maybe G-d was hiding in Hinduism, because I knew He was not in the Reform Judaism of my childhood, which was 99% mink coats and Cadillacs, and 1% G-d.
Swami Satchidananda’s 20-acre ashram in the rolling hills of northern California was packed with Jews, among them young women in their twenties and teens. It horrified me to see Jewish girls wearing diaphanous saris, following this serpent with love and devotion, literally throwing rose petals at his feet and chanting his name as he walked. (You may go ahead and puke if you feel the need). Everyone knew there was hanky-panky going on with him and his devotees, even though he was advertised as celibate. Some of the biggest yogis of the last generation were pedophiles and claimed to serve demons.
And guess who brought Satchidananda to America? Three Jews – Les Crane, Tina Louise, and the artist Peter Max, all big names in the seventies.
I had driven about 400 miles with a friend from Los Angeles to experience this yoga event. It cost $300.00, which in 1975 was a lot of money.
During the conference, I bought a giant conch shell from the ashram bookstore. The conch was reputed to have yogic power. When you blew into it, out came a melodious bass-baritone sound that was supposed to give out a certain vibration associated with one of their pantheon of hundreds of gods and goddesses, who are all one. The only trouble is that it’s not the right one.
Lesson number one for anyone searching for G-d: Do not worship any deity unless He said the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. If that event is not in their scripture, scram, your soul is in danger. And stay the heck away. It is the Sitra Achara and it is traif.
The purpose of life according to Hindu scripture is to shatter the duality of existence and break the wheel of karma of life and death and rebirth. It is a worthy goal, but cannot be done if you are worshipping the Sitra Achara, which is what they do. When a Hindu comes to worship the One G-d and say “Shema Yisrael,” he will have gotten off the wheel of karma and he will inherit peace in the afterlife. As a note of interest, in the last generation, the head yogi who was yogi of all the yogis was a French Jewess named Mirra Alfassa, known as the mother. She was descended from famous rabbis.
The week after the yoga conference, I flew from the west coast to Chicago to visit my parents. When I unpacked my suitcase, I saw the conch. Figuring it would amuse my mother, I walked out of my bedroom into the living room blowing the conch. She smiled, pleased and intrigued by the mellow sound.
Right then, my eyes fell on the living room mantel piece, and I saw my grandfather’s shofar sitting there.
I was stunned, literally frozen in my tracks. A shock ran through my body. The appearance of that curved black ram’s horn shattered my reality. I looked down at the conch in my hands and it was suddenly disgusting. The conch was spiritually tainted and I was tainted by holding it. The sight of the shofar sent me a shockwave from Heaven, a loud call to tshuvah. I set the conch down.
I think back on it now, and I realize that I was staring at an object that had been used to fulfill a commandment from G-d, to proclaim Him King by blowing the shofar once a year, on the first day of the seventh month. I was looking at Eternity.
My grandfather and his father, and who knows who else’s father before him, stood up on Rosh Hashanah and said the bracha, “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.” And then he blew tekiah shvarim truah tekiah, proclaiming G-d King of the universe.
The purity and holiness invested in that ram’s horn cannot be expressed by the human tongue.
After I put the conch down, I walked over to the shofar, almost afraid to touch it. It was no stranger to me. I had grown up as a child with that shofar on display in the house. I wanted to cry, but the shofar said to me, “Be a man.”
I picked up the shofar and blew it and, to my surprise, I blew a good strong sound, shrill and soft at the same time. As a kid, I could never blow it. And even today, more than forty years since that moment in Chicago, I cannot blow my grandfather’s shofar well enough to use it for the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah. I have another one that is easier to blow.
But that moment, I was able to blow it, and the sound shattered a pantheon of kelipot. Suddenly, I knew who I was. By hashgacha pratit, it happened in the month of Elul when it is a minhag Yisrael to blow the shofar every day to arouse one to tshuvah. “Can a city hear the call of the shofar and not tremble?”
I know it was the month of Elul because a few days later, I returned to the west coast, and the next week was Rosh Hashanah. And I went with my Uncle Irving and Aunt Hannah to their Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and heard the shofar. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, I was taken to the Chabad House at UCLA, my alma mater, and it was the first time I had ever set foot in an Orthodox shul. That day I became frum.
May it be His will to redeem Israel and the families of man in the coming year 5778, the year of the Tree of Life. 78 is ayin-chet, rosh hataivat for Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. It is also three times 26, YHVH, may He be blessed, and the gematria for bread (lechem) and salt (melech). May it be His will that the twelve loaves of Showbread be offered on the Golden Table before the King in the Beit HaMikdash this year 5778.
And may we all be written and sealed for a good and sweet year. L’Shana tova.