For dessert I served poached pears to my pregnant daughter and pregnant daughter-in-law. As I sat down I heard a knock at the front door. Standing in the heat of the Rosh Hashana afternoon was a man wearing a white shirt, black suit and black fedora. “Would anyone like to hear the shofar,” he asked?
I opened the door wide with an uncharacterisitc sweep, as if this dramatic moment had been ordered and rehearsed. He walked right in, like the Cat in the Hat. He introduced himself as Reuven and claimed to know the Hasidic Jew on the cover of the July-Sept. Calendar of Events from the Israel Museum that was laying on the coffee table around which the family sat. “He’s the father of HaRav Grossman from Migdal HaEmek,” he said, pointing at the photo. “You know him, don’t you?” Reuven had not been in the house ten seconds and he was already playing Jewish geography.
“I too am a Grossman,” I told him, but he did not care. I offered him water from a clean wine glass, but he refused. He had walked two hours from Ramat Eshkol to Beit Zayit to play the shofar for anyone who opened the door. Reuven took off his hat and planted it on my son’s head. My son clutched his two small children to his chest as if protecting them from some potential danger. The Chabadnik then invited my son to recite the Shechechiyanu blessing, which he did, with everyone’s accompaniment.
We all wanted to hear the shofar, but first Reuven wanted to tell us some stories. The central theme of these tales was the same: a prodigal son of either a rich man or a king behaves poorly and leaves home, only to return years later. The father, always forgiving and loving, accepts the son back into the fold. I was happy when Reuven finally put his lips to the shofar. Seeing it was my house, I sang “tkiyah,” but not too loudly lest he get excited by a woman’s voice. He blew. Then I gave him a soft “shvarim,” and he blew that note. After his truah he added some rehearsed improvisations. None of us slumbering Jews ate our pears while he blew the shofar. The children sat quietly for the first time during the day, as did we all, though inside, our souls rustled. When Reuven finished blowing the shofar, I broke into a nigun from joy and would have continued into a Bratslav dance, but I didn’t have partners. We thanked him for coming, wished each other a good new year and he left as quickly as he had come.
Later that evening I couldn’t stop thinking about this visit. The knock at the door–a literary motif older than Talmud; my uncharacteristic lack of suspicion of the stranger; his giving me the opportunity to perform a great mitzvah on the first day of the new year by offering him hospitality, though he refused to eat and only drank tap water from a paper cup; hearing the shofar with my family in the living room.
But then darker thoughts came, because this is Israel where “church” and state intertwine, religion and politics swim in the same muddy waters. During his brief visit Reuven told us, almost as an aside, that Chabad plans to open a Chabad House right here in Beit Zayit and yes, there would even be classes for women. The more I thought about Reuven, the more the King of the Universe became a stock secondary character in a nasty battle for hegemony and Reuven became a brilliant marketing strategist. He was preparing the way. He was the messenger for Moshiach. In a matter of weeks or months Chabad would have a foothold in my pastoral moshav.
Along with my excitement about the new year, full of fertility, I also feared that soon, men in black coats would be telling me stories and then advising me exactly how to live my life.
The tale of the stranger knocking, then entering, and sounding the shofar, ultimately inspiring the host to song is a classic motif, this time the stranger inspiring a hostess. I appreciate that, as a reader, I was invited along for the innocence and beauty of the experience, and then, afterward, following along in your mind as the innocence became riddled with understanding of others’ premeditation.
Thanks for your comment, Andrew, and Happy Birthday.
a cautionary tale…so sad that it has to be so– on the other hand, I wish I could see those grandchildren! What a gift to have so many around the table to welcome in this new year!
There are many gifts in Israel, Jane. One is having family nearby. Hope you can come visit some year soon.
Sounds as though the shofar-toting Reuven was the snake in your little Eden. Nothing is simple in the Promised Land.
Gmar hatima tova to you and your family.
Great comment, Esther. Thank-you.
Another magnificent post! A polished gem, every word the perfect and only word. Thank you thank you!
Thank YOU, Joan. I value your feedback. .