Still Praying for Safety in Boston

At 6:00 this morning, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. I let it go to voicemail.

“The following is an emergency message from Alert Boston, the City of Boston’s Community notification system: T service is suspended until further notice. Watertown and surrounding communities, including Allston and Brighton should stay home shelter in place and understand we have an armed and dangerous person still at large and police actively pursuing him. Please be patient in use common sense about congregating in large crowds until the suspect is apprehended. We will continue to update the public with more information as it becomes available.”

A few thoughts went through my head this morning when I listened to this message:
1) Who is calling and why are they calling at 6:00 in the morning?
2) I’m never leaving the house again.
3) I’m really glad I live in a city that has such an advanced notification system that they can tell me and everyone around me so efficiently when it is not safe to leave the house.

For the last week or so, William Billings’s poem “Lamentation Over Boston,” which the Zamir Chorale of Boston recorded in 2006, has been playing on loop through my head. (The recording is here if you want to listen.) His prayer, today, is also mine.

His poem:

By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept,
we wept when we remember’d thee, O Boston.
Lord God of Heaven, preserve them, defend them,
deliver and restore them unto us again.
Forbid it, Lord God,
forbid that those who have sucked Bostonian Breasts
should thirst for American Blood.
A voice was heard in Roxbury which eccho’d thro’ the Continent,
weeping for Boston because of their Danger.
Is Boston my dear Town, is it my native Place?
for since their Calamity I do earnestly remember it still!
If I forget thee, yea, if I do not remember thee,
Then let my numbers cease to flow, Then be my Muse unkind,
Then let my Tongue forget to move and ever be confin’d;
Let horrid Jargon split the Air and rive my nerves asunder.
Let hateful discord greet my ear as terrible as Thunder.
Let harmony be banish’d hence and Consonance depart;
Let dissonance erect her throne and reign within my Heart.

When Zamir sang this piece in 2006, I had been in Boston just a year. Now, having made this area my home for almost eight years, I really feel what Billings must have been feeling as he sat (I imagine) looking at the Charles River and composing this piece during the American Revolution. I love this city. I want it to be safe.

Another lesson I’m remembering, and trying to keep on my heart:

A mentor at Hebrew College once told me that when having issues with someone, you can pray for their healing. Even though they do not need physical healing, this acknowledges that what’s going on with them, even if they are directing their anger or hatred toward you, is their own. It allows us to remain in a place of knowing that the anger is not directed toward us explicitly, but rather we are a vessel for their frustration.

Even in a place of anger, anxiety, and fear, we must remember that these perpetrators are human. We must acknowledge that they weren’t born this way. Perhaps the message is naïve, but it’s the only way I know how to keep from dropping into a spiral of pessimism and despair.

As I sit in my apartment, missing the noise of regular vehicle traffic and the streetcar, I hear more-than-periodic sounds of police sirens. I pray today for the safety of the people of Boston. I pray for the men and women of the police departments and other emergency, intelligence, and rescue departments who are actively on the job today during this incredibly unsafe time. I pray for the families of these officers, that they should themselves feel safe and that they should see their heroes when the worst of this is over. I pray for anyone who has been injured in any part of this conflict. I pray for the comfort of anyone who has lost a family member or a friend. I pray for the hospital workers and the doctors, the government officials, and everyone who is working for the security of this city. And, despite their unspeakable crimes against this city, I pray for the perpetrators of the crimes that have turned Boston upside down this week. I pray that their souls find equilibrium and rest, so that they — and we — can be free again.

A Prayer for Recovery in Boston

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, שָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה, הוּא יְבָרֵךְ וִירַפֵא אֶת כׇּל שֶׁנִּפְצְעוּ אֶתְמוֹל בְּבּוֹסְטוֹן עִרֵֽינוּ.
הַקָדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִמָלֵא רַחֲמִים עָלֶיהֶם, לְהַחֲלִימָם וּלְרַפְּאוֹתָם וּלְהַחֲזִיקָם וּלְהַחֲיוֹתָם, וְיִשְלַח לָהֶם מְהֵרָה רְפוּאָה שְלֵמָה מִן הַשָמַיִם רְפוּאַת הַנֶפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף, וִיחַזֵק אֶת יְדֵי הָעוֹסְקִים בְּצׇרְכֵיהֶם, הַשְתָא בָּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב. וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.

May God who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless and heal all those who were attacked yesterday in Boston, our city. May the Holy One, blessed is He, have mercy upon them, that they should recuperate, and be healed, strengthened, and enlivened. May He send them, quickly, a full recovery from Heaven; a recovery of soul and of body. May He strengthen the hands of those who assist the wounded. Now, immediately, in due time. And let us say: Amen.

The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

Question for the Day

Sat through a really interesting presentation about bringing drums into davening during Community Time today at Hebrew College. Of course, the synagogues I tend to frequent do not permit drums during Shabbat or holiday services. However, every time this issue comes up, the clergy are required to explain their choices.

So, question for pondering today: 

Not so long ago, we were a Judaism of “Because I said so.” Some communities still are — and this is not denominationally driven. Reform Judaism makes choices that they justify with “Because we said so.” Orthodox Judaism of every ilk makes choices based on its understanding of the Torah, “Because we said so.” “Because I said so” was a good enough reason for me to listen to my parents when I was a kid. When did that answer stop being good enough to mean anything at all? Is it always good to have to justify every choice, every decision? Is it okay to just have “blind faith,” not in our God, but in our choices?