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
Wednesday, October 1. 2014
"Adoshem pakad et Sarah" - God remembered Sarah. We read this phrase, from Parashat Vayera, on Rosh HaShanah. We include it in the Amidah. It is a phrase to which we give little thought, but it is the essence of the High Holy Days and, one could say, the motivation for Judaism. It convolves two fundamental ideas: to be known by God and to be granted fertility. We yearn for both, as individuals and as a community.
Everything in Judaism is designed to enable us to draw closer to God. Why? What does it mean to be close to God? It means that we see God, and God sees us. God recognizes us. God hears us. We need that connection, for in that connection is granted pardon. God in Judaism is both communal and personal. We have a relationship with God, and that relationship is the focus of most of the psalms and most of the High Holy Day liturgy.
Our relationship with God is both intellectual and emotional. We study to engage that intellectual relationship and we discuss and argue and analyze to meet God on the conscious level. But we sing to reach God on the emotional level. We sing to reveal to God our power and our yearning. We sing to let God know that these words are not graffiti on a wall, scribbled in haste: they are special. Our relationship with God requires that we sing. Our relationship requires that we sing as individuals and as a community so that we may be known by God.
God remembered Sarah by enabling her to conceive Isaac. While Abraham might have been the first Jewish man, Isaac was the first to be born Jewish. He represents the survival, the flowering of the community. He represents a personal fulfillment for Sarah and a communal fulfillment for Judaism. And he represents proof of the connection between God and people: God heard Sarah, acknowledged her, and did something about it. God was present.
Throughout Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh'mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah our task is to ensure that God is present. Think about what it will take for God to remember you, personally, and remember our community collectively, and consider what it means for us to be fruitful. Sing to God. Engage your mind, and pour out your soul, and refuse to leave until God remembers us.
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