Meditation before the New Year

Sitting in silent vigil in preparation for my role on the holy day, I am privileged to sit among a minyan of davening Jews. This is the simplest avodat ha-lév (worship of the heart) sounds. In the next three days we will hear how majestic it can be, perhaps entirely opposite.

I am aware in this moment of how engaging simplicity can be. How the moments people most easily understand are those they don’t have to sift through layers to reach.

And in this moment, in silence, I am also aware of how vocal participation is crucial to inclusion in experiences. In my silence, I feel outside the community though I sit within it.

And so, this High Holy Days, I make a commitment to simplicity, a commitment to vocal engagement, and a commitment to majesty. Perhaps we as a community can find the balance.

Shanah Tovah.

Remembering.. to Forget?

I awoke this morning keenly aware that it is September 11th, and decided I was not going to write about it. (So much for intentions.) When it comes to recognition of September 11th as “the day that will live in infamy” of my generation, I struggle — how much do I want to commemorate, how much do I want to just live my daily life? My Facebook wall has been littered with messages: one who lamented the absence of any recognition of this day in history in a major newspaper, another who composed a poem about his memories of that day, acknowledging his sadness but also his willingness to be happy and to move on, a third changing her Facebook profile picture to an American flag and cover photo to a majestic nightscape of the Twin Towers.

Last Shabbat, we read the maftir from Parashat Ki Tétsé, which we famously also read each year on the Shabbat before Purim. It concludes (with Deut. 25:19), “Erase the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. Do not forget.”

As the boy of thirteen who celebrated his becoming a Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat on our bimah read, I suddenly realized that at thirteen years old, this child was born the year our lives were forever changed. He doesn’t remember the panic I experienced as a new ninth-grader in public school twenty miles from midtown Manhattan. Why should he? He was barely born then.

I am most challenged by this question: Why should he remember? Does it matter to this thirteen year old kid that we remember? Should we tell him the stories we see in our minds’ eye? By Middle School, unless they’ve heard from parents and friends, our students haven’t learned this history yet.

And perhaps more to the point, does it matter that we remember at all? They say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. But is it everyone’s history or just our own?

“Erase the remembrance of [X]. Do not forget.” Perhaps there is a blessing in forgetfulness, but also the lesson of compartmentalization. The comedic accolade “He’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know in my lifetime” comes to mind. On September 11th, as many other days in which we choose to commemorate sad or challenging events, we acknowledge the new-found distance another year has brought us from the tragedy, but we remember. Perhaps more important of all, however, is that we show our children and our students that we are coping — that we remember, that we have been scarred, but that we are actively trying to move our lives into a place that minimizes the impact of the tragedy on our day-to-day living. We in the 21st century will carry this scar as long as we live, but let us do positive, unifying acts that make the blow just a little less impactful each year.

On the One Hand…

As I sit in prayer eighteen days from marriage, I am keenly aware of my left hand. This morning, as each of my weekday morning prayer experiences since age twelve, my left hand is wrapped in the black leather straps of my t’fillin. Since December, nine months ago, I have pondered the juxtaposition of these straps with the engagement ring on my fourth finger as they simultaneously symbolize my betrothal to my soul-mate and to my God.

And this, of course, is my life-long juxtaposition: On one hand, wholehearted commitment to my marriage and one day (God willing) a family, while on the other hand committing my whole self to my holy work. To let the fingers of these intertwine, to have the courage to see them as only one hand, is to let them genuinely and lovingly become one path: to aspire to true balance and harmony between family and service.

As t’fillin are worn on the non-dominant hand so as to strengthen a part of us that is weaker, so too may my awareness every day of my left hand, with each of the commitments and separate promises its adornment represents, serve to strengthen my resolve as I aspire to balance between my new married life and my new position as cantor. May they each be life-long.

God of Mercy

אל מלא רחמים… God filled with mercy…

It is my job to chant these words in commemoration of the three boys who were murdered after they were abducted 18 days ago.

God filled with mercy.

Filled with mercy? How can you talk about mercy when three teenagers — children — are dead? The world mourns for Eyal Yifrach, Gil’ad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frenkel.

And talk about? No, start with. We start by invoking God’s mercy when people are dead.

In the moments when God is the hardest to reach, in the moments we are angriest, when souls have been released from our world, we start by calling God “merciful.”

In the past two weeks, I have officiated at two funerals. Both were people who led long, fulfilling lives. El malé is comforting when someone has lived life to their fullest. When someone’s life is cut short, I can’t pass the first three words without sensing deep cognitive dissonance.

We ask Harold Kushner’s famous question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

After I posted an article about the deaths on Facebook, one person called this the “most horrendous outcome imaginable.”

We do not make comparisons between deaths and situations. We are heartbroken. We never met these boys, but we are heartbroken. But while we focus on their memory, and their families’ profound sadness, we remember all of those we know who are still missing:

– Ze’ev Rotschik, missing from Israel since 1973.
– Zechariah Baumel, Tsvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, missing from Israel since 1982.
– Ron Arad, missing from Israel since 1986.
– Guy Chever, missing from Israel since 1997.
– Lauren Spierer, missing from Indiana since 2011.

Is this the most horrendous outcome?  Three boys are dead.  There is nothing that will bring them back.  At the same time, knowing how long others have been missing, and how that gaping hole of unknowns continues to affect their friends and families, I hesitate to admit the relief I feel.  When I heard they had been killed shortly after their abduction, my inner voice said, “Mercifully.”

God filled with mercy.
Have mercy, let these boys’ families find peace.
Have mercy, bring the others, and all the others who are still missing, home safely.

May their memories be blessed.
יהי זכרם ברוך

A New Beginning

A new beginning
Spinning as if in a puffy pink dress
Among a sea of people
In a busy room.
Happy, and at the same time
Content to focus on all the colors,
On all the noise,
And at the same time
To let it all blend together
Realizing that everything blurred
Is less daunting
Than stillness.

   At this very time when the whole world is almost in chaos, we must look to the cultural and above all to the spiritual forces to reconstruct human life on a nobler, purer and above all a saner basis.
It is through music—the universal language—that we may help bring the nations together in amity.
Music which can allay the unrest of labor created by the monotony of the toil of the wage earner forced upon him through our inventive genius, which has taken the burden from the back and hands of man and put it on to the machine.
Music, which can start the rhythmic flow of movements through the muscles and sinews and the very blood of your children.
Music, which can assuage your grief and intensify your joy.
Music, which can fill your brain with infinite harmonies.
Music, which can hold the family together and bring peace and happiness to the humble home of the mechanic as well as the palatial home of the millionaire.
Music!—as the mother sings to the babe at her breast, as the choir chants as the wedding, in the requiem for the dead.
Music! Music! which begins where words end, which whispers to us of immortality.

John C. Freund on “Jewish Traditional Music”, in an address to the Jewish Ministers-Cantors Association at Temple Emanuel on December 19th, 1922.

Franz Liszt encounters Solomon Sulzer

Yesterday, for my thesis research, I spent part of the morning reading Franz Liszt’s The Gipsy in Music, which contains a pretty scathing treatment of Jews — perhaps worse than Wagner’s famous one. But his experience in Sulzer’s synagogue can be called nothing less than transcendent. While I would usually paraphrase, I am compelled just to reprint his writing and let it speak for itself. I promise to comment more in depth on this piece at a later date, but right now I’m just letting it sink in and aspiring to someday provide this kind of transformative experience for someone in my own pews.

(From Franz Liszt, The Gipsy in Music, translated by Edwin Evans 1926, p. 52-54.)

At Vienna, we were acquainted with the celebrated tenor, Sulzer; who, in his capacity of Cantor in the Synagogue, had made a reputation the more distinguished through being reserved for a circle of real connoisseurs. Within this artistic organization the regulation mask for concealment of the interior being was not so thick; so that occasionally the actual impress upon his soul caused by the secret paternal teachings might be observed.

It was common to hear him speak as if, after having squared the blocks of stone for the construction of the pyramids, he had witnessed the Egyptian darkness. He seemed to have been an eye-witness of the drowning of the impious Pharaoh and his host; and of the cloud of fire guiding the chosen people, invisible to its enemies; the latter seeming still so to shine in his eyes as to give them an emotional expression—an expression which returned in speaking to Korah, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed by the earth. His account of the sistrum and psalterion sounding together for joy in Zion, and of the tones of David’s harp, as as that of one who had heard them; and he seemed equally to have known Hiram, to have visited Ophir and Sidon, and to have watched with his own eyes the Queen of Sheba mounting the steps of the legendary throne of Solomon, ‘leaving so much aroma behind her that for eight years the streets were still impregnated.’ In the same way he seems to have listened to the songs of the captives on the banks of the Euphrates in the time of Ezekiel, the words of Nehemiah and the orders of Esdras when they raised the Temple from its ruins and when they rebuilt the Holy of Holies.

It was in order to hear him that we went to the Synagogue of which he was the musical head, and where he sustained the upper part.

Rarely has it happened to us to be attacked by so lively an emotion; one to seize so irresistibly all the sympathetic and devotional faculties of our soul, as on that evening when, with a thousand lights dispersed like stars over a vast ceiling overhead, we became aware of a strange choir of dull guttural voices starting to sing.

Each chest seemed a sort of dungeon from the depth of which an impalpable beings as emerging in order to praise the God of the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of the misery and slavery. It seemed a cry to him in a voice resigned by resolute, as if sure to be delivered one day from this endless captivity; sure to be quit of this odious land with its strange rivers, and sure to escape from this new Babylon, the great whore, in order to re-enter into his own kingdom in the sight of all the terrified nations and with triumph, a magnificence without example.

In the course of hearing the Hebrew words pronounced one could easily imagine them as sombre flowers becoming detached from their stems and shedding their vibrating petals and sonorous thongs, and rough discords, float and flutter about; scripting the air like tickling tongues of fire. The air seems specially aglow for the sense of hearing, which is assailed by burning waves, ardent breathings, and inflamed vapours; at a time when everything remains calms and pacific to the sight, and when all seems serene and tranquil in the material atmosphere.

No woman was admitted into this consecrated enclosure, as if therein the act of prayer was reserved for male courage and virile force. It was as if the communion of this chosen nation was with a God angry and firm, prompt and long in punishing, tardy and slow in his rewards; and as if, with that God, there existed a treaty; with respect to the conditions of which, whether properly carried out or not, no third party was able to judge.

For all that, however, the women thus have counted amongst themselves souls of great strength; such as Deborah, Judith, Abigail and the mother of the Maccabees. Others there have also been, full of grace; such as Rachael, Ruth, Bethsaba and the wife of the young Tobias. And others full of greatness, such as Hagar, Zipporah, Esther and Anna, the prophetess. It follows, therefore, that neither force, grace, nor grandeur of the soul are sufficient for the communion with the God of Israel; none are eligible who are not marked with the mysterious sign—the sign of blood.

Quite suddenly all these men (all still bearing the seal which Abraham bequeathed to the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael) started a succession of short movements, rapid and regular, as if in order to render visible the rhythm of their apostrophes. Soon, it seemed as if the Psalms themselves were floating above our heads like spirits aflame; or like a multitude of winged Cherubim floating in space to serve as a footstool to the Most High.

Jubilant with enthusiasm, exultation and heavenly ecstasy, these majestic poems unfolded their story of the powers of God of Abel and of Noah, of Melchizedek and Isaiah. It would have been impossible to resist associating all the sympathies of one’s soul with the grand acclamation of this crowd of the circumcised; carrying on its shoulders the burden of so many ancient traditions, so many divine benefits, so many rebellions and so many adulterous infidelities. Bearers of hard punishments, but, at the same time, of unshakeable hopes.

Whilst a Christian’s imagination was feeling itself cast down by the weight of these remembrances which accumulated before the altar, without victim and without sacrifice—before the sacred parchments and the Holy-Books—those who made themselves victims to replace the holocausts preserved their countenances impassable; betraying neither supplication nor ecstasy, while their provisional sanctuary resounded with the familiar evocation, the terrible threefold name:

Adonaï! Elohim! Jehovah!