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.

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.

Feeling Exposed

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that on the eve of Yom Kippur I’m thinking about forgiveness. Just as the Rabbi spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the arbitrariness of New Year’s resolutions on a random day on the calendar, it seems to me just as arbitrary to pick a random day to ask for forgiveness from the people around us.

We have Ten days of Atonement each year. This year, these ten for me have kind of felt like a religiously prescribed timeout in the corner to think about what I’ve done. Productive, though? Yes.

But there is also something to be said about how to exposed I feel today. In preparation for my leading services on any other day, I dress up, I apply makeup, I give myself a manicure, and I put on my favorite earrings to match my outfit. I imbue myself with the confidence I require to do an excellent job. In preparation for Yom Kippur, just the opposite.

Today, in preparation, I took my makeup off. I took off all of my jewelry. I removed the nail polish from my fingers. I brushed my teeth. I showered. I took one last look at the text of a service which calls me unworthy and unfit for the task for which I am readying myself. Today, I tried to give myself confidence, but the text, which I have coddled the last few weeks and months, tries to bring me down.

I have nothing to hide behind. Not even the clothes I wear will show through the robe I’m wearing on the bimah tonight. And yet, Hineni. here I am.

It is with this humility that I apologize for everything I have done this year. With nothing else to think about, nowhere else to run, I am faced with my flaws today. I am faced with how my flaws affect those around me. for the first time in a very long time, I can only think about the way I have affected others this year.

In some cases, I have done good. I have positively influence the people who trust me most. I have had some good ideas, I have loved. I have learned. I have lived.

I have also gotten in my own way. I have prevented myself from actualizing my own potential. I have perhaps transferred this weakness onto a community. I have not created risk free environment where others can actualize. I have prevented my own growth, and I have stunted the growth of others. I have not taken advantage of teachable moments.

And yet, and yet. Hineini, here I am. Poor in deeds, unfit, unworthy for the task at hand, quaking in my boots with anticipation and fear.

Despite this, and perhaps, because of this, may we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

On Light and Memory

Today is the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather, C. Lawrence (“Larry”) Eisen, z”l. As is common custom, I have completed some Torah study in his memory for today.

But first, some memories.

My grandfather majored in Electrical Engineering at Brooklyn Tech High School, from which he graduated around 1940. He told me that the skills he acquired at Brooklyn Tech allowed him to join not only the manufacturing staff at his subsequent job, it actually allowed him to join the lab, “in which testing was done on that electrical equipment” that was being manufactured: sinine rectifiers (which apparently change alternating current into direct current). When, in 1941, my grandfather was drafted to serve in the American army in World War II, he then joined the signal corps, which involved “telecommunications between various parts of the army.”

I remember that one time when we were kids, Grandpa Larry and Grandma Norma brought us a prism. (It was sometime when we were living in our second house probably before we renovated the kitchen, so it had to have been sometime between 1994-1996, but I can’t remember precisely when.) I will admit that that day I was more amused by the pretty colors that appeared on the wall opposite me rather than wondering about what made the colors appear, but I remember as Grandma and Grandpa patiently tried to explain it to us nonetheless. I remember how happy it made Grandpa to try to get us to understand these concepts. It was that day that Grandpa explained to me how a sprinkler makes a rainbow appear. Maybe that’s why I’ve since loved chasing rainbows. Maybe that bit of understanding has contributed to how excited I am to say the b’rachah prescribed for viewing a rainbow – the more I understand, the more in awe I am of divine Creation.

And in that vein, in my grandfather’s memory, my study this year has focused on light. Particularly, I have focused on the first b’rachah preceding the Sh’ma in the morning service, called “birkat yotzér,” in which we praise God for the light He gives us every day. Commonly, the weekday version of birkat yotzér appears in the siddur as follows (translation adapted from Silverman siddur):

barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, ‘elohénu melekh ha’olam, yotzér ‘or uvoré hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom uvoré ‘et hakol.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of all.

Okay: God is the Creator of light, darkness, peace, and everything. A good opening. We continue:

hame’ir la’aretz veladarim ‘aleha berahamim. uvtuvo mehaddésh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh vereisheet. mah rabu ma’asekha adonai. kulam behokhmah ‘asita. mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanekha. hamelekh hamromam levado mei’az. hamshubah vehamfo’ar vehamitznasé mimot olam. ‘elohei ‘olam. berahamekha harabim rahem alénu. ‘adon ‘uzénu, tsur misgabénu, magén yish’énu, misgav ba’adénu.
In mercy You bring light to the earth and to those who dwell in it, and in Your goodness You continually renew each day the miracle of Creation. How great are You works, O Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your handiwork. O King, You alone have been exalted from times eternally past, and You will be praised and glorified until all eternity. O everlasting God, in Your abundant mercy have compassion upon us. O Lord of our strength, sheltering Rock, Shield of our salvation, You are a stronghold unto us. 

‘el barukh gedol dé’ah, hékhin ufa’al zoharé hamah. tov yatzar kevod lishmo. me’orot natan sevivot ‘uzo. pinot tzeva’av kedoshim. romemé shaddai. tamid mesaperim kevod ‘él uk’dushato. titbarakh ‘adonai ‘elohénu ‘al shevah ma’asé yadekha. ve’al me’oré ‘or she’asita yefa’arukha selah.
O God, blessed and all knowing, You have designed handmade the radiance of the sun. You, O Beneficent One, have wrought glory to Your name; You have set luminaries around Your strength. All Your hosts in heaven continually declare Your high praises and Your holiness, O Almighty. May You be blessed, O Lord our God, for the excellence of Your handiwork and for the bright luminaries which You have made; all shall glorify You.

It is clear, still, that we are praising God for His creation of the celestial bodies – the sun, in particular. All of these in heaven praise God. Still straightforward. We continue:

titbarakh tzurénu malkénu vego’alénu boré kedoshim. yishtabah shimkha la’ad malkénu, yotzér meshar’tim, va’asher mesharetav kulam ‘omedim berum ‘olam. ‘umashmi’im beyir’ah yahad divré ‘elohim hayyim ‘umelekh ‘olam. kulam ‘ahuvim, kulam berurim, kulam giborim, vekhulam ‘osim be’émah ‘uvyir’ah retzon konam. vekhulam potekhim ‘et pihem bikdushah ‘uvtohorah, beshirah ‘uvzimrah. ‘umvar’khim, ‘umshabekhim, ‘umfa’arim, ‘uma’aritzim, ‘umakdishim, ‘umamlikhim…
May You be blessed, our Rock, our King, our Redeemer, our Creator of ministering angels who, as envisaged by the prophet, stand in the heights of the universe and together proclaim with awe the words of the living God and the everlasting King. All the heavenly hosts are beloved; all are pure; all are mighty; and all in holiness and purity, with song and psalm, all bless and revere, sanctify and ascribe sovereignty…

‘et shém ha’el hamelekh hagadol hagibbor vehanora, kadosh hu. vekhulam mekabbelim ‘aléhem ‘ol malkhut shamayim zeh mizeh. venotenim reshut zeh lazeh lehakdish leyotzeram benahat ruah. besafah berurah uvin’imah kedoshah, kulam ke’ehad ‘onim ve’omerim beyir’ah:
… to the Name of God, the great, mighty, awe-inspiring and holy King. They all pledge to one another to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and give sanction to one another to hallow their Creator. In tranquil spirit, with pure speech and sacred melody they all respond in unison and reverently proclaim:

kadosh, kadosh, kadosh ‘adonai tseva’ot, melo khol ha’aretz kevodo.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Adonai Tseva’ot, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

veha’ofanim vehayot hakodesh bera’ash gadol mitnase’im le’umat serafim. le’umatam meshabbehim ve’omerim:
And the Ofanim and the Holy Beasts, in great sound proclaim to the leagues of Seraphim. They utter praises and proclaim,

barukh kevod ‘adonai mimmekomo.
“Blessed be the glory of the Lord that fills the universe.”

The ministering angels and all of the other celestial beings proclaim God’s holiness and His presence. The text then ties together its previous few paragraphs: beings singing, God is enduring, God combats evil, God is the Lord of wonders, and God made the heavenly lights.

l’él barukh ne’imot yiténu lemelekh ‘él hai vekayam, zemirot yomeru vetishbahot yashmi’u. ki hu levado po’él gevurot. ‘oseh hadashot, ba’al milhamot, zoré’a tsedakot, matzmiah yeshu’ot, boré refu’ot, nora tehilot, ‘adon hanifla’ot, hamhadésh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’asé v’réshit. ka’amur: le’oseh ‘orim gedolim, ki le’olam hasdo.
“To the blessed God they offer a sweet song; to the Ruler, the living and ever-enduring God, they utter hymns and make their praises heard; for He alone works mighty deeds and makes new things. He is the Lord who combats evil, sowing righteousness and causing salvation to spring forth. He creates healing, for He is the Lord of wonders and is revered in praises. In His goodness He renews the creation every day continually, as it is said in the Psalm: “Give thanks to He who made new lights, for His mercy endures forever.”

Up until this point, the liturgical text is clearly unified. God’s greatness, ministering angels, celestial bodies. With this in mind, what comes next is surprising:

Or hadash ‘al tsiyon ta’ir, venizkeh khulanu m’hérah le’oro. barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, yotzér hame’orot.
O cause a new light to shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy to delight in its splendor. Blessed are You, O Lord, Creator of Light.

The b’rachah at the end, acknowledging God as Creator of Light, nicely finishes this extended blessing — but where did Zion enter our discussion?

9th-century Jewish Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon was unhappy with the insertion of Zion into this b’rachah, and omitted it in his siddur. The commentary to this section in the siddur of Saadia Gaon’s contemporary, Amram Gaon, indicates the following (before deciding to include this phrase in his compendium anyway):

Our master Saadia said that it is forbidden to say “And cause a new light to shine on Zion” in this blessing. Why? Because we are not blessing about the light to come in the days of the Messiah, but rather about the light that we see each and every morning. 

Abe Katz, a pre-eminent scholar of tefilah in our generation and the founder of the Beurei Hatefila Institute, included in his commentary on this text the words of Naftali Weider, who apparently found the following in the handwritten manuscripts of Saadia Gaon (Katz’s translation):

“Between all that I heard about the additions and the deletions within the three B’rachot of Kriyat Sh’ma, I found that two of the changes do not fit into the original intent of the authors. The first: there are those who recite the line beginning: “or chadash al tsiyon ta’eer, v’nizkeh koolanu mehérah le’oro.” […] It is prohibited to recite that line. The type of light that was the basis of the B’rakhah was the light of the sun itself and not something else ([i.e.] the light of the [Messiah]).”

Further, the Tur, Orah Hayyim 59, according to Katz’s assembly of sources, indicates that the recitation of this phrase is not recited as part of the Sephardic liturgy. It affirms Saadia Gaon’s position and indicates that Rashi’s position is the same. The Likutei Maharikh, a Chassidic commentary, says, however, that whether one’s inclinations direct him or her to include or omit this phrase, “one should not digress from the custom within his area.” This much-later Chassidic commentary, in fact, reads into the entire previous b’rachah the light of Zion and the Messiah, particularly angled toward its devotion to the Ba’al Shem Tov.

On the one hand, I agree with Saadia Gaon – now that it’s been called to my attention, the acknowledgment of Zion in this passage does seem out of place. Perhaps another example of minhag avoténu beyadénu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands. While there was a place discuss its appearance in the 9th century, a piece of liturgy at least a millennium in its place feels permanent. However, as we daven in the days to come, it is perhaps important to be aware of the kavanah, the intention, of this paragraph. We thank God for His creating the celestial bodies which guide our days, our calendars, our tides, our sailors, and our lives. In this day and age, it is perhaps even more important that we acknowledge God’s power over the sun as we increasingly benefit from solar energy.

I never really got a straight answer about whether my grandfather believed in God, but it seemed to me that he did. He certainly davened when he was in shul. I do believe that from C. Lawrence Eisen I inherited an ability to see the divinity in physics and in the science of the world around me. God has given us the world to live in, to harness, to make our own, and He helps us embrace it every day. I loved and respected my grandfather with all of my heart; he was my teacher, he was my friend. Four years later, I still miss him, and I was blessed to have him in my family. May his memory be for a true blessing.