By HOWARD BROWN
Contributing columnist and author of Shining Brightly
I got my favorite shofar from a Muslim friend who carried it halfway around the world to present it to me as a gift.
I have other shofars. Most Jews do—and most of us are thinking about these “ram’s horns” this month as we are approaching the Jewish High Holy Days, when the unforgettable blasts of shofars summon our fresh commitment to renewed life in the year ahead of us. In the traditional Jewish calendar, the year 5781 will begin with Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year,” after sunset on Friday September 18.
This year, I will be thinking especially of the shofar that sits in my office near my desk—the shofar brought to me from Morocco by my friend Dr. Mahmoud Al-Hadidi. Dr Al-Hadidi is a physician specializing in pulmonary intensive care, which has placed him on the front lines of the pandemic. He is also Chairman of the Board for the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC), which has placed a special emphasis this year on encouraging and helping healthcare workers. Dr Al-Hadidi and I both sit on the founding board of directors for the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Committee for Michigan (MJAC).
Like my friend, I have been involved in building interfaith bridges for many years. This year, however, I can’t help but feel the heavy weight of so many painful divisions all around our world including the losses and separations from the pandemic. I’m carrying all of that in my heart as I get ready for these milestones. So, in this troubled year? Believe me: Hopeful rays of light are welcome wherever I can spot them.
This is deep spiritual work we are called to do every year. As Jews approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which follows 10 days after the new year celebration, we are required to make amends—as best we can—with anyone we have harmed in the past year. You may not be Jewish, but just stop and think for a moment about how you would approach such a solemn challenge if you had to make a list—literally make a list—and start reaching out to each individual. If you are an observant Catholic, think of it as approaching confession once each year. What a list you may have accumulated!
This tradition of asking forgiveness and making amends is one of the most powerful annual obligations in Judaism—because it is an affirmation that we believe the world can be healed, repaired, made whole again. We do this, each year, because we believe it really can make a difference.
In all of my writing these days—especially in a memoir I’m completing called Shining Brightly—I’m focusing on the many ways each of us can find hope each day. Yes, our world is badly broken right now. I’m well aware of the crises. But, I don’t choose to linger over these great chasms that have formed between people. I choose to focus on how we can always keep calling out to others across whatever divide we find between us. I choose to spend my energy on hope and healing. If you’re not Jewish, you’ve at least heard of this pillar of our tradition: tikkun olam. It means that God is calling us always, every day, to find ways to “repair the world.”
The services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur normally draw the biggest attendance to Jewish congregations, every year. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, many may join services virtually this year—but some will show up in person. Between the Internet and personal attendance, the crowds will be vast.
While these services are so long that they try the patience of children (and, to be honest, many adults)—there are moments of great wonderment in these traditions that even the youngest girls and boys will never forget.
As a small child, of course, I didn’t know too much about the ancient traditions unfolding around me in those services. I didn’t understand all the tensions circling our globe in the iciest depths of the Cold War. I couldn’t have explained the crucial obligations of tikkun olam and all the hopeful inspiration I draw, today, from our tradition. I was just a little kid who had a chance to sit next to my father waiting, waiting, waiting for that moment when the shofar was blown.
I would stand up in our pew, holding onto Dad for balance to see the shofar raised—and blown.
What a sound!
Eventually, I learned the names of the tones:
- Tekiah, a single long blast
- Shevarim, a trio of sounds
- Teruah, a whole series of sounds
And then the Tekiah Gedolah—the “great tekiah” when the sound was held, and held, and held. I would actually check Dad’s watch and count.
The blowing of the shofar is a call to the Jewish people to awaken, repent and bless God—and each other in the coming year.
To receive any shofar as a gift is truly an honor. The reason I hold this particular shofar from Dr. Al-Hadidi so dear—quite literally, it’s a daily visual reminder at my desk—is the impulse that led him to reach out toward me with this gift.
This was no casual souvenir of a holiday. Dr. Al-Hadidi took very seriously our interfaith work together. This shofar was selected, transported and given with a great deal of intention. I was invited to Dr. Al-Hadidi’s home to hear Michigan’s U.S. Senator Gary Peters speak to an interfaith audience of Muslims, Christians and Jews. In the midst of the program, I was asked by Dr Al-Hadidi if I would say a few words representing the Jewish community of southeast Michigan. I am the past board president of the American Jewish Committee Detroit (www.AJC.org) and now a current board member for the Jewish Community Relations Council–American Jewish Committee Detroit (www.jcrc-ajc.org).
I thanked Peters for the U.S. Senate’s adoption of legislation to crack down even further on antisemitism, because we all were concerned about the huge increase of harmful acts against Jews across our country. But I went a step further and urged that the legislation also include islamophobia as both religious-ethnic minority groups face the same forms of hatred. Jews and Muslims must shoulder this hateful burden together—along with allies all across America.
“Hate cannot be tolerated,” I said. “Our children are born to love. Hatred is not born in us. Hatred is learned, acquired and a choice that is propagated in our communities. We must stand against it—together.”
As that event came to a close, another friend Bushra Alawie, former Detroit FBI Community Outreach Agent, asked me to come speak with Dr. Al-Hadidi.
To my sheer surprise, Dr. Al-Hadidi told me of his family trip to Morocco. While visiting a small Jewish area of Marrakesh, the doctor met one of the last Jewish street vendors in that area whose history stretches back more than 10,000 years. The doctor immediately thought of me, he said.
Even though he is Muslim and was traveling in one of the world’s great centers of Islamic culture—he was thinking of me. He wasn’t my doctor, but he had become a dear friend through our peacemaking work together across our religious boundaries. And, he was aware that I had been struggling with—and thankfully recovering from—stage 4 colon cancer for several years.
What did the doctor know about the complexities of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditions? Not a lot. But he did know that the shofar is a potent symbol of renewal, a cherished reminder of hope—and its sound stirs our commitment to keep reaching out to others.
I was so surprised and humbled as he presented that shofar, I barely recall what I said to him.
Did he know all of our customs and liturgies and traditions? No. But he deeply understood the foundations of both of our traditions—a call to recognize that we all are children of God and must mend the divisions that separate us.
That’s why I display that particular shofar in my home office.
That’s why I look at that shofar—not just at the high holy days—but every day.
Half a world away from Michigan in a tiny market stall in the midst of a family vacation, Dr. Al-Hadidi suddenly thought of me and, from that spark, he made a simple decision to buy a little gift and carry it halfway around the world.
His choices continue to shine brightly in my life—and in the lives of all who know him.
As we approach the Jewish New Year 5781 and I prepare my own prayers of thanks for the blessings I have received over the years, my friend’s name is on my list.
And that’s why shining brightly is such an important idea—because those rays of light just keep on traveling far beyond where we ever could have guessed.
By reading this story today, I have just given you Dr. Al-Hadidi’s gift. His ray of light—from far away Morocco to me in Michigan—is now shining on you.
Will you reflect that light in our world? Will you send that hopeful ray just a little further? Share this column on your social media or via email.
That’s the idea of Shining Brightly.
And with that, join me in wishing the world:
Care to read more?
HOWARD BROWN’s memoir Shining Brightly will be released in early 2021. Come back next week for a second column by Howard about the Jewish High Holy Days. Keep watching the weekly editions of ReadTheSpirit magazine for further updates about this important new book. If you have not done so already, click on the green “Get free updates by email” link in the upper right corner of this page to receive a weekly reminder of our new stories.