Tuesday, May 12. 2015
A cantor is not just a guy who sings. Synagogues around America are eliminating cantorial positions, as is Temple Beth Sholom. So what? There are educated people who can lead services, and there are good musicians who can sing. There are good teachers who can explain the services, and rabbis who know the liturgy. There are numerous b'nei mitzvah who have read the Torah and can read it on any given week.
Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel said the following: "The right Hebrew word for Cantor is ba'al tefillah, master of prayer. The mission of the Cantor is to lead in prayer. He does not stand before the Ark as an artist in isolation, trying to demonstrate his skill or to display vocal feats. He stands before the Ark not as an individual but with a Congregation. He must identify himself with the Congregation. His task is to represent as well as to inspire a community. Within the synagogue, music is not an end in itself but a means of religious experience."
A cantor today, in the Conservative movement, studies for the same length of time as a rabbi. Aside from the Masters degree in music, the cantor must know the Tanakh and the liturgy intimately such that he is conscious of every word. There is a reason for every pause in the reading of the Torah, and there is a reason for every note that is sung in a service. The cantor must know that certain motifs will link us to Yom Kippur while others will bring us to Shavuot. When the cantor chants the Keil Malei, it is unique and it is not perfunctory.
And yet the cantor brings the Congregation to prayer, to spirituality, through much more than music. Through teaching, through the simple acknowledgement of every child in the preschool or the religious school or "active seniors", and by giving every person his attention. The cantor speaks and listens as well as sings. Sometimes with a rabbi, sometimes alone, the cantor joins families in funerals, weddings, in times of pain and times of joy. The cantor must be present.
The cantor is charged with the essence of the Conservative movement, to maintain tradition while recognizing the evolution of Judaism. The tradition of the services is a combination of liturgy and nusach and without a deep knowledge of why and how, that tradition will fade away. The tradition of the Torah is that combination of the exact pronunciation and ta'am, sense, of the text. Without the cantor, that tradition will fade away and the kamatz katan will go the way of the dodo, and with it, the meaning of the words. The cantor must also find a way to engage people and infuse new music into the service. Working within the text and the tradition, the cantor must find the hook that will span generations.
No cantor is successful in every task. But congregations, looking for that one extra thing that will bring more families to services, risk losing the many other parts of our tradition which have sustained us for thousands of years. They risk losing the heart which opens with every word sung and taught, as though it might welcome something holy, as though it might hear something in return.
Thank you, Temple Beth Sholom, for three good years of prayer, song, and study. May we continue on our separate paths to wrestle with God and search for ways to repair the world.
Wednesday, April 1. 2015
Water is the substrate for Judaism. Some religions might focus on blood; we focus on water. It is the source of life. It is not a surprise that freedom came by way of the Sea of Reeds. God's power was revealed through water and it was the boundary we had to cross. It wasn't a fence, a mountain, a valley, a cliff: it was a sea. On Pesach, as on Sukkot, we rejoice in the symbol of water as our means to redemption.
On the first day of Pesach, in the Musaf service, we chant a unique piece of the liturgy. The language is unlike the rest of the service, the melody is unlike the melodies used in the Shalosh Regalim. Even the shalliach tsibbur is dressed in strange clothes. The text is called Tal, dew, and is chanted as part of the Musaf Amidah to ask for the dew that sustains crops in Israel in the coming season.
Tal is a piyyut, a liturgical poem, the last remnant of a larger setting of a poetic version of the Amidah, called a kerovah, which included many such piyyutim. Written around the seventh century in Palestine and attributed to the great poet Eleazar Kallir, it expands the ideas of the the second berakhah of the Amidah, the Gevurot. The second berakha focuses on God's awesome power over nature and God's ability to revive the dead. As such, it is messianic in nature. And so is Tal. As Tal is messianic, so is Pesach.
Tal has three main themes, two of which are obvious. The first is the necessity for water and the recognition of God's role in the changing of the season. The piyyut was written in Palestine and, appropriately, addresses the seasonal change from rain to dew. Pesach is a holiday celebrating the springtime, the change of season. Naturally, it is linked to the piyyut through this message. In the Musaf service on the first day of Pesach we change from acknowledging God's power over rain to God's control over the dew.
Tal takes the message of the life-giving power of water, under God's control, to God's provision of crops and food. The piyyut quickly moves from dew to the produce of the land and constantly comes back to this theme: "designate us for a blessing in Your joy with abundant grain and wine." The use of food imagery continues with phrases like "fruit of the earth", "satiate us with blessing", "fill our silos with plenty", "by it bless food". Pesach is Chag HaMatzot, the Festival of Matzah, and what we eat on this holiday is one of the ways in which we remember and consecrate the holiday. We eat the bread of our affliction, which we hurriedly baked and which sustained us as we were redeemed. The seder itself is a feast celebrating the symbols of our freedom in food, and in liturgy. Food in the desert, manna, is one of the images recounted on Pesach, and the Pesach offering itself, the central symbol of the holiday, is eaten. Thus, food is a fundamental theme in both Pesach and the piyyut.
The third theme which Tal shares with Pesach is the messianic vision, the ultimate redemption, the time when Jerusalem is rebuilt and the dead are re-enlivened. The messianic vision embedded in Tal is not as obvious as the water and food themes and can only be deciphered by carefully unpacking the literary allusions which the paeton, the poet, uses. For example, the use of the statement "the fruit of the earth as proud and glorious" is a literary allusion to Isaiah 4:2, which speaks of "the day when the radiance of the Lord will lend beauty and fruit, and the splendor of the land will give dignity and majesty to the survivors of Israel." Clearly, this, as well as other numerous allusions to Isaiah, links the piyyut not just to rejuvenation in the springtime sense, but rejuvenation in the messianic sense. This is made even clearer with the language regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which alludes to Isaiah 44:26: "To Jerusalem it shall be inhabited and the towns of Judah small be rebuilt. And I will restore ruined places." As well, the piyyut has "if you now would renew our days" harkening us to Lamentations 5:21: "Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself and let us come back. Renew our days as of old."
The messianic theme of Pesach is obvious. The redemption from Egypt and slavery parallels the redemption in the age of the messiah. No stronger vision of the messianic age is needed than the statement, "Next year in Jerusalem." The haftarah read on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach, from Ezekial 37:1-14 highlights the strong messianic vision of the holiday: "Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again."
Come to services on the morning of the first day of Pesach. You will hear the poem which summarizes in three minutes what took hours the night before: that at this time, we commemorate God's power through water, how we are sustained through food, and how we have been, and shall be again, redeemed from slavery.
Tuesday, January 27. 2015
I've always looked forward to Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, when we read Shirat HaYam from Parashat Beshalach. The Song at the Sea convolves so many ideas fundamental to Judaism: God's power over nature, the real and symbolic importance of water, our redemption from slavery. It also celebrates the conquest of our enemies and subsequent punishment. The haftarah read on this Shabbat is the Song of Deborah, which also celebrates the military victory over our enemies.
I love the focus on song, I love how this is a time to remember the outpouring of emotion which can only be effected through song. But, reading the words, I am saddened by the exaltation of strength, power and violence. I am embarrassed by the translation which revels in the terror visited upon the foes of our ancestors. The Tanakh is preoccupied with dominance and conquest, and peace is an afterthought.
Perhaps this is how it must have been in order to insure the continuation of Israel, the people, the nation. Somewhere along the line the rabbis recognized that Judaism must shift its focus from dominance to peace. The ultimate goal is not conquest, and peace does not imply the servitude of another nation (as in Deuteronomy Chapter 20). The experience of the Diaspora was humbling: the rest of the world would not be drowned by God although at times it may seem as though our enemies are everywhere. Peace with Egypt was not secured by the drowning of Pharoah's armies. Rather, we were given a temporary reprieve until we could find a way to make peace. Must we fight to defend ourselves? Yes, but that is not enough.
We have not yet found that way to peace. At times, it appears some Jews are stuck in the Biblical era, hoping to return to the (short-lived) prominence of David. However, my discomfort with the past leads me to a profound thankfulness for the present. Judaism has, indeed, evolved. We are not being pursued across the Sea of Reeds and we need not hope for the vanquishing of our enemies. Our lesson from living dispersed in the world is precisely to make peace throughout the world. Destroying our enemy does not make peace. It may provide a temporary respite, but ultimately we must come to a common understanding of how to live together. Let us join in that search for peace, a peace which goes beyond Shirat HaYam.
Friday, January 23. 2015
The 49 Sophismata of Richard Kilvington was a medieval document which attempted to more precisely describe the perception of motion and being. While I was studying this document in a philosophy class of 4 students many years ago, I was profoundly bored. However, I remember it and the professor so clearly. What does it mean for an object to be in the process of moving - is it in a continuing state, or a completed state?
You can see why this might be pretty tiresome. I got one thing out of this: in a job, when you're going, you're gone. That is, once you are in the process of leaving, many people consider you to have already left. You are no longer relevant in the same way you were before. And that is the state in which I find myself. I will be leaving my position at the end of June. Not catastrophic. Not unusual. I have time to find another position. Yet it has been very difficult for me to accept this "change of state." In reality, I continue to perform my job as I have always done - with energy, passion and professionalism - but something is now missing, and I have tried to find out what it is that has now changed.
Ownership. It is the difference between a contract worker and one on salary. The difference between a part-time cantor and full-time one. The difference between someone who has a stake in the long-time success of an organization and a community, and one who is simply filling the need for today. Once you have been told, or you have decided, that you will be leaving, it is no longer your congregation. For a short time, you might have believed that your fate was tied to the fate of the community. Now, that belief is gone.
There is a strong connection between my trivial situation of leaving Las Vegas, and the profound story of the exodus which we are currently reading in the Torah this week (parashiyyot Vaera, Bo, and Beshalach). What would it feel like to be an Israelite in Egypt knowing that soon, soon you would be leaving. You never thought of leaving before. For hundreds of years this was your home. You might have disliked your life, but you owned it. Now, as leaving becomes real, you are no longer part of this place. Still there, yet your relationship to it has changed.
We all go through this. It is a human condition - perhaps a condition of being - that change implies a loss. When we change our place, we must recognize a different relationship with our past. Even thinking of the place from which we leave as a "past" requires a change. The story of the exodus is the story of every person, leaving where you were and redefining where you are.
Richard Kilvington would have said, when you're going, you're gone.
Late for the Sky
Thursday, January 8. 2015
Shabbat is coming once again and once again it is an opportunity to remember the value of peace. The attack on the journalists in France reminds us of the regular and persistent violence around us. But Shabbat is just as regular and even more persistent. Whether we feel like it or not, it comes. That is one of the advantages of the calendar - regardless of our state of mind, it is.
Another song for Shabbat, or any day, to remind us that wherever we are we must remember the goodness of being.
Sunday, January 4. 2015
There is a balance one must strike between remembering the old, and creating the new. This is our chance to create a new year. So, how much should we assess the past, remember the good and the bad, and let it guide our creation? The true act of creation - the one which we revere in religion - is creation ex nihilo: creating something from nothing. We don't do that. We always start from something. Now we're starting from 2014. We might want a blank canvass for our painting, but we get one with some smudges on it, perhaps a little paint from our last masterpiece, a fingerprint or two.
I'm going to see my canvass as a window, a clearing. It has a frame, it is not unbounded, but it is open. Air will come in, and light, and, if I want, I can step through it - yes, right into my creation. I can look back if I want, but I might turn into a pillar of salt. Or, I might see Amalek behind me. Going forward, perhaps there will be a wilderness, long years of little water, but then there is the promise of milk and honey. Perhaps, in 2015.
Wednesday, December 17. 2014
Look to the Candles (to the tune of Look to the Rainbow)
On the twenty fifth of Kislev
Said my cantor to me
I’ve a wonderful story
Waitin for thee
Tis a light for your children
And a song for your heart
To sing it whenever
The world falls apart
Look to the Candles
Light the menorah for
Each of eight days
Look to the candles
Light and remember
the hope it displays
Light and remember,
Light and remember
Light and remember
The hope it displays.
We think of the lights
And sing happy songs
But the true Chanukah
To redemption belongs
For it happened to us
In those days, that time
That God and our heroes
won the battle sublime
Look to the Candles
Light the menorah for
Each of eight days
Look to the candles
Light and remember
the hope it displays
Light and remember,
Light and remember
Light and remember
The hope it displays.
Wednesday, November 12. 2014
The US and China reached an agreement today addressing climate change. It actually doesn't matter what the agreement states, because any agreement is better than the complete inaction of those two countries. Having worked on both the technical and political aspects of climate change, I have nothing good to say about those who are skeptical of the science yet have not taken the time to understand it! On the other side, there are very real political concerns which make the implementation of agreements - particularly those which involve emission caps - very difficult.
My song for today, popularized by Richie Havens, reminds us of our link to the natural world: Follow
Tuesday, November 4. 2014
I've done my homework. As a responsible citizen, I investigated all of the candidates and referendums (thank you, Google) and I'm ready to vote. In most cases, I've found that my preferred candidate is the one in the party I support, but I have checked out their records in the areas of education, environmental conservation, economic responsibility, and gun control. I have not been happy with the government on many levels theses past few years and I do hope for a change. Yet even as I think that, cynical me is reminded of the cycles we go through. Perhaps we are trapped in the inevitable patterns of the government, the economy... Do we make a difference?
Song for the day: The Circle Game
Thursday, October 30. 2014
November is one of my favorite months. Fall has a depth and a darkness that even the Sun of Las Vegas can't touch. That doesn't mean it is a sad month. In fact, it is a month for digging deep and unearthing the shining gems hidden beneath the topsoil. There are no Jewish holidays in November (Cheshvan), but there are secular holidays, and these are meaningful. Election Day, Veterans Day, and of course Thanksgiving.
I was getting ready for Shabbat and I thought of Yedid Nefesh, the beautiful piyyut to begin Kabbalat Shabbat. I was unhappy with the melodies I know for it - something was lacking: they are often slow, peaceful, and frankly boring. And they don't represent the words:
Beloved of the soul, merciful Father, draw your servant to your will. Then your servant will run like a deer; he will bow before your splendor. To him, your affections will be sweeter than the drippings of the honeycomb and all other pleasant tastes. ..Reveal yourself, please, and spread over me, my Beloved, the shelter of your peace. Let the earth be illuminated from your glory, we will exult and rejoice in you. Hasten, show us your love, for the time has come, and be gracious unto us as in days of old.
There is yearning, there is movement, there is urgency. It is not the lazy afternoon reclining of the seudat shlishi. No - it must have tension and action. So here is my Yedid Nefesh:
Friday, October 24. 2014
As we go into Shabbat once again, it's important to place our lives in perspective. What we have, not what we lack. It is easy to focus on our lack of money, friends, health, - the list goes on. Sometimes all we need is a small reminder of what is good in life to return to an attitude of thankfulness. For me, simply teaching a class of students eager to learn, on a subject I love, brings me back to the good in life.
Here's a song by Ralph McTell that usually brings me back: Streets of London
Thursday, October 23. 2014
It is impossible to insulate yourself from the chaos of the world. We can search for some sort of inner peace, but at some point you must recognize that there is no outer peace. Life and death are normal - the way of the world - but I refuse to believe that violence and terror is normal. Perhaps that is naive, since violence is ongoing, always has been. Yesterday, a shooting in Ottawa, a 3 year old murdered in Jerusalem.
At the same time, I try to record some song about feeling peaceful. Is that callous? Is it absurd?
My song amidst the chaos: Peaceful Easy Feeling
Wednesday, October 22. 2014
No sooner had the holidays ended, the regular schedule of classes and services began. It is a welcome return to normality, but also a return to dealing with the mundane aspects of life.
Always on my mind is the way in which spirituality is part of my life. Spirituality, in my definition, is the ongoing engagement in the struggle with God. It can look like many things and manifest itself through study, music, writing or just thought. A "spiritual" person is both weighed down, and supported by the struggle. That's my definition - it avoids the stereotypical head in the clouds or emotional demeanor that is supposedly emblematic of the spiritual. This week we read Parashat Noach. There's a lot in that parasha, but one word sticks out for me: hit'halekh. The reflexive form of the verb halakh, to go or to walk. It is not used often in the Tanakh, but it is used here: Noach hit'halekh with God. What does this mean? Clearly, it's not as simple as "Noah walked with God" or "Noah walked around with God."
The verb is used in another place that I recall - when David is on the roof, looking at Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel, verse 2: "he rose from his bed and "strolled" - v'yithalekh - on the roof of the royal palace and from the roof he saw a woman bathing." "Strolled" is not the right translation. Perhaps walked around, struggled. In the same way Noach walked with God: there was an uneasy aspect to it, an internal meditation.
That is how I describe my movement now. Hit'halekh - to walk while being engaged with....
Monday, October 6. 2014
I've read some people's comments on their experience of Yom Kippur services this year. Most have said how inspiring their services were, how great the rabbi's sermon was, etc. My experience as a cantor, as the shallich tzibbur for most of the services, was not all beauty and enlightenment. It was not "tzom kal." It was a roller coaster ride of emotions and physical discomfort, of fear and pride. It was a struggle between myself, God and the congregation.
This was my 15th year leading Yom Kippur services: 9 as an invested cantor, 4 as a student cantor, and 2 as a lay person. I know the nusach well and little of my preparation was about the appropriate melodies to use. Each year I try to learn a new extended recitative, and I began working on that in July. I've been singing continuously through the summer, so my voice was in pretty good shape; I starting doing some extra training at the end of August. But this year, I wanted to involve more kids in the service, and I wanted to do some Torah reading. Getting the post-b'nei mitzvah involved started at the beginning of August with phone calls (to each of the 30 students), preparation of text and sound files, and sending out emails. That continued through September right up until Yom Kippur. Shortly before Yom Kippur, DJ and I worked on a song for the Yizkor service.
Those were the mechanics of preparing. The real struggle was the emotional and mental battle pressurized by food and water deprivation. There is a little more pressure on me this year since I am acutely aware that this is the final year of my contract. I've had a couple of great years here, but I know that, as in most pursuits, it's all about what you've done lately. So I'm thinking, do I play it safe and make sure I don't do anything that would alienate the rabbi, president or the congregation, or do I reach for that special moment, that higher note, that more interesting twist - that might fail? Kol Nidre is not an easy service. It is not a service in which you simply need to chant the text, follow the pages, sing the songs everyone knows. There are places where the leader can make a difference and there are decisions regarding the melodies to choose between tradition and congregational engagement. It's also a deceptively long service, over 2 hours, mostly continuous singing, all by the cantor.
Yom Kippur is not necessarily a day of trepidation or sadness, but it has always been a somber day for me. Not a happy day. A day of wondering how to live. It's been a lonely year, a year separated from family, and a year in which I've worked hard at my job and contemplating the quality of my life. How can I do the right things, and enjoy doing them? How can I connect with people in a deeper way? How can I maintain friendships in my life? How can I contribute to making the world a better place, outside of my job? And I was thirsty, all through the day. When I was leading the service, I was concentrating on every word and by the end of the day that became difficult. When concentration wanes, pronunciation suffers and I trip on my words a bit. By the end of Ne'ilah I'm struggling to maintain the nusach and I find myself falling into easy chanting patterns. I want the day to be over. When I'm not leading, I struggle to avoid judging the person who is leading: why aren't they using the traditional nusach? Why did they chant that word that way? No - be compassionate, think about what you're reading. And I'm still thirsty.
Through Ne'ilah I notice that my voice is holding out pretty well. I won't be hitting too many high notes, but I'm still able to deliver a tune. But then it's over, and we start havdalah. Havdalah definitely signals a separation: the lights go out, the candle is lit, and the kids come in with their glow-sticks. It is other-worldly and warm. Afterwards, families join together and we sing the Priestly Blessing. And all of the emotion of the day, the realization that I've made it through, the sadness of regrets and the joy of being part of this big community - tears came, I couldn't sing.
I went home and had some guacamole and beer and contemplated the day. Everything went well. I think most of the congregants found the service to meet their expectations. But I know that I won't hear about the negatives for a while, and when I do, it'll be when least expected. Yes, I've grown cynical in 15 years. Most often what I get from the day is ... relief, that it's over. Sunday I feel the effects of running a marathon: I'm tired, my legs hurt, I just want to watch some football. I start thinking about Sukkot. And I wonder, how will I be able to do this again next year? And a little bit of excitement creeps in...
Friday, October 3. 2014
Tonight is the Kol Nidre service, the beginning of Yom Kippur. A time to focus completely and intensely on our relationship with God. To try to make that connection so that we can know that - everything is...in order, as it should be, taken care of, cleansed for next year.
There is one part of the musaf for Rosh HaShanah where I use a melody from the show Les Miserables. For me, the song "Bring Him Home" fits these days of awe perfectly. It is a plea to God, to remember us, acknowledge us, and an acceptance of our own life and death. It expresses the hope for the next generation and what it means to be fruitful. It is a commentary on what "home" means. It is what I'll be thinking about on Yom Kippur.
Song for Yom Kippur: Bring Him Home
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