For many years, I have had the privilege to be a leader in many roles that fill my life. As a civil rights attorney, Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District, and founding member and President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, I graciously accept the mantle of leadership and the expectations that sit on my shoulders due to it.
One thing that is typically expected of leaders is a high degree of excellence, perhaps bordering on perfection, in those areas in which they lead. Indeed, although I am not a perfectionist, and recognize my own fallibility, I certainly strive for excellence in virtually everything that I do, especially when I am in a leadership role.
A few weeks ago, my rabbi asked me if I would blow the shofar on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For those who are unfamiliar with this practice, the shofar is a ram’s horn that when blown into properly, cries out with an animal like horn sound. Here is a link to a video showing the four calls for the shofar and what they sound like.
The origin of shofar blowing goes back to ancient times before clocks and calendars were routinely available. Blowing the shofar would let everyone know that the Jewish New Year had started.
In our synagogue, as Reconstructionists, we engage in many new forms of traditional practices. When it comes to shofar blowing, we invite members, young and old to practice together before the High Holy Days, and blow the shofar together. This is unlike the common practice in most synagogues, where the President, or a respected elder usually blows the shofar alone. Indeed, we did have a nice group of five shofar blowers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but none of them were available to blow shofar on the second day, which is why my rabbi asked me to do so.
When my rabbi asked me to blow the shofar, I readily agreed to do so, as I had done so before, although it was quite a few years ago. So, a few days beforehand, I got out our shofar and practiced. It did not go well. It sounded like a very sick animal. I kept at it and finally got some good notes out and although my wife suggested that I should tell our rabbi to find someone else, I was determined to fulfill the promise I had made to our rabbi and not burden her with one more thing to do.
After we returned home from services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I took out the shofar again. Although initially, I produced the sick animal sound again, eventually, I was able to produce enough clear notes that I felt confident in my ability to blow the shofar when the time came during services.
Unfortunately, my self-confidence was misplaced. There are quite a few notes to play during services, and initially, all I could do was produce the squeaky sick animal sound. I am unsure what went wrong. Perhaps I was nervous. Perhaps I was not shaping my mouth correctly. Perhaps I did not have the hole of the shofar properly aligned with my mouth. Eventually, I produced a few clear notes, and the congregants almost cheered. I think they were as relieved as I was. Unfortunately, there were more notes to play, and the sick animal sound returned.
After I was done, I sat down, and my wife sweetly held my hand. As I thought about what happened, it dawned on me that what I had just done, albeit unintentionally, was display imperfection, for all to see and hear. Normally, displaying our imperfection causes shame or embarrassment. But on Rosh Hashanah, when we engage in a deep personal and collective acknowledgment that we are imperfect beings who must always strive to do better, I realized that when a leader graciously displays imperfection, he gives permission to all those who witness it, to accept their own completely human imperfection.
Towards the end of the service, when my rabbi invited me up to give my President’s greeting, I humbly thanked the congregation for permitting me to display my imperfection. A number of people, including my wife, my rabbi, and a few congregants, said they appreciated my comments, as well as my unsuccessful effort to blow the shofar.
In a few days, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement will arrive, closing this year’s Days of Awe. During this year’s days of awe, may we all acknowledge our own imperfections, and rather than criticize the imperfections of others, may we help support those who struggle to overcome their imperfections.
For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.