August 8, 2007

Rabbi Sue Fendrick, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is Senior Research Associate at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, a freelance editor and writer, and the granddaughter of Samuel Kitzes z”l. She lives with her family in Newton, MA. She can be reached at 

Some would say that my youngest children have too many names. 

The night before the eighth-day brit ceremonies for our twins, I could not let go of two names on the cutting room floor. I argued successfully that, since we were not (as many feminists do) saddling them with a doubled last name, there was room for a third Hebrew name. And so my daughter’s second middle name, Shifra, the possibly-Egyptian biblical midwife to the Hebrew woman who saved countless boy babies, honors both the midwives who skillfully cared for me in labor and the righteous gentiles who rescued my family during the Shoah. And my son’s second middle name, Ze’ev, pays tribute to another part of our family history. 

On my father’s side, I am a direct descendent of the ba’al tekiah, the shofar blower, in thebeit midrash of the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism). Ze’ev Wolf Kitzes was a chief disciple and close companion of the Besht—as the Ba’al Shem Tov is known—and is buried next to him. A story is told: 

The Besht told Reb Ze’ev to study the kavannot, the meditations and prayers, for the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. With great devotion and love he studied them, and wrote them down so he could concentrate on them while he blew the shofar. But when he got up to blow the shofar for the first time, the paper had disappeared. (In some versions of the story, the Besht had secretly taken the paper from him.) Stunned, even shattered, his mind was blank—he couldn’t remember a thing. Devastated to find himself utterly unprepared for this sacred task, he began weeping, and somehow managed to sound the shofar blasts. 

At the end of musaf on that first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Besht approached Reb Ze’ev, who assumed that he would be reproached by his beloved teacher. But the Besht tells him instead that his shofar blowing was extraordinary. “In the king’s palace,” he says, “There are many gates and doors to many rooms. There is a great ring with many keys, one to each gate or door, but there is one master key that opens them all. 

“The kavannot are the many keys, each to another door within us and within the heavenly realm. The master key that opens every door, even the hardest to reach places in our souls and the innermost chambers of the Divine—that master key is a broken heart. Your shofar blasts today were the most beautiful that I have ever heard, and ascended straight to heaven.” 

This story contains a theme found in many Hasidic stories that reflects the democratic strand in Hasidism, like that of the boy playing his simple flute on Yom Kippur, or the adult saying to God, “I don’t know the prayers, but I do know the aleph-bet–let me offer them to you and you compose the right prayers with them.” Ze’ev Wolf Kitzes—a learned rabbi in his own right—here serves as a stand-in for the simple person whose piety is (at least for the moment) free of wordy liturgical trappings, whose simple religious expression God loves best—even as the shofar is emblematic of the holiday season that best reflects our Jewish tendency to be what one of my colleagues calls “liturgical packrats”. In our own synagogues—from New Age to “black hat”—the High Holidays are a veritable festival of verbal ritual, easily outpacing any other days in the Jewish year with respect to word count. 

This coming Tuesday and Wednesday are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month focused on repentance, leading up to the High Holidays. For all of Elul we will hear the daily blasts of the shofar, as a remembrance of the important days to come and as a call to avoid procrastination, lest we find ourselves on Rosh Hashanah with too much spiritual work still undone.

At the end of this week’s parasha, Parshat Re’eh, we learn that on the three pilgrimage festivals—Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot—we should not appear at the central place of worship empty-handed; each of us must bring offerings, in accordance with what we have been given, what we have. But for Elul, and for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the thick and word-filled prayerbooks we will hold–we must, like the hollowed-out shofar itself, also learn how to come up empty: to appear before the Divine, to come into (or even lead) holy community, saying, “I offer my most open and sincere self. I am ready to be moved even to tears when I think about my failings and shortcomings, and yet I will move ahead despite them, and use whatever I have in sacred service. My emptiness, too, is an offering. Hineini—here I am.”