When my dear father, may he live and be well, showed me his new “shofar shoes”, I was reminded of how uniquely Jews steeped in Jewish tradition look at the world.
It was just about three years ago, several hours before the arrival of Yom Kippur. My family and I had the wonderful privilege of spending the High Holidays in Baltimore with my father and his wife (my wonderful “second mother”, as I refer to her; I lost my own beloved mother a decade ago). Father is the rabbi of a small congregation and serves as the recording secretary, of Baltimore’s widely respected Orthodox rabbinic court.
Before he showed me the shoes, he recounted how his old cloth “Yom Kippur shoes” – leather footwear is forbidden on the Jewish Day of Atonement – had grown uncomfortable. These new “shofar shoes,” however, he explained, were much better.
He is someone, without question, who can appreciate a good shoe. As a child in a Polish shtetl, the only shoes he ever had were those first worn and outgrown by older siblings. To this day he attributes his size 6EEE feet to the confining, ill-fitting footwear of his youth. And during the years of World War II, when he and his yeshiva-colleagues found themselves unwilling guests of Josef Stalin in a Siberian labor camp, the frigid temperatures made foot-covering a matter not of comfort but of life or death. He recalls how he and his friends would wrap long pieces of cloth in layers around their feet for insulation. When he says the morning blessing “Who has provided me all my needs,” which Jewish tradition teaches refers to shoes, he surely relates to it better than most of us.
My father richly appreciates so many other things too. He takes powerful pride in his children and grandchildren. None of them is particularly “successful” in the world’s gauge of the word, in the acquisition of wealth or property. No dot-com millionaires among his progeny to date. But they are all, to a person, observant Jews, immersed in the life, texts and traditions of the Jewish religious heritage. And my father knows that the great-grandchildren with which he has been blessed – and, with G-d’s help, those yet to come – will grow up in dedicatedly Jewish homes. That, he insists – not what the world thinks – is true success, Jewish success.
So many things, I pondered, are so different when regarded through deeply Jewish eyes. Even what a New Year’s day means. To the wider world, January 1 is a day of partying and revelry, an opportunity to get drunk and have a good time. Rosh Hashana, by contrast, is a time of judgment – a time of happiness, to be sure, but of trepidation as well, of regret, of apologies, of repentance.
My father blows the shofar at his shul on Rosh Hashana. The blasts of the ram’s horn call all who hear them, in Maimonides’ words, to “awaken, sleepers, from your slumber,” to reject the “silly distractions of the temporal world” we occupy; to focus on what alone is real: serving our Creator and being good to one another. To see the world, in other words, through Jewish eyes. No wonder my father was so happy to discover that the comfortable Yom Kippur shoes he had found were “shofar shoes.”
I didn’t understand at first what a “shofar shoe” was, though, and told him.
He smiled and responded patiently, “Why, each one has a shofar on it.”
When I expressed skepticism, he went to his bedroom and emerged triumphantly with the footwear.
And when he held them up for me to see, his Jewish eyes taught mine a lesson.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at the Nike “swoosh” quite the same way again.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.