By Daniel Feldman
As a child, I spent many Rosh Hashanah services sitting next to my father in the synagogue and acting as his “middle ear.” That’s a term I made up, meaning that those who play the role of “middle ear” serve as translators, the “ears” that bridge the deaf and hearing worlds.
My father often asked me what the shofar sounded like. He saw that the Machzor had “names” for the sounds of the shofar. I tried to describe the sounds to him. Tekiah, I explained, was a single long sound; Shevarim was three short sounds; Teru’ah was several quick, short sounds.
My father looked as I pointed to each word in the Machzor that represented the sound, and then watched the rabbi blow each sound on the shofar. Anywhere from 10 to 30 sounds are performed in one group, and these groups of sounds are performed several times throughout the Rosh Hashanah service. At the end of each round of sounds, my father would comment.
“That was wonderful!” he would say, or “That sounded nice!”
I knew he was unable to hear the sounds of the shofar, but he could feel some of the vibrations. And because of my description, I believe he could imagine what the sounds were like.
So much of our prayer experience, and so much of the proper performance of the Jewish commandments, is based on hearing. The chazzan in the synagogue I grew up in had a phenomenal voice, singing melodies nobody I have heard since has matched. My father was unable to hear the chazzan’s voice, but he nevertheless gained pleasure from his singing. That’s because he observed everyone else as they listened to him sing. He saw people’s lips move as they sang along. He picked up a sense of the rhythm of each tune. He could see everyone smile.
So here’s my question: Does it matter if you can actually hear the sound of the shofar? Or, for that matter, the beautiful voice of the chazzan?
No, I say. Deaf people have an innate understanding and appreciation of such sounds no matter what. I believe the heart intrinsically “hears.”
I think we can all learn a lot from how the deaf behave during Rosh Hashanah. As with all of life, it’s less about what you hear than it is about what your heart thinks and knows. Rosh Hashanah is more about what your heart hears than what your ears hear. I believe that deaf people are more sensitive to how they treat others than hearing people are.
My son is also deaf; yet, unlike my father, he has the advantage of cochlear implants to provide him some hearing. Each year, I remind my son about my father’s example and the Rosh Hashanah morals that he taught me. My son took it to heart and expressed things even better. He said, “Just because we can’t hear people talk, it doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to what they say.”
By Daniel Feldman