The Power of Song in Prayer

January 18, 2015
Singing is not just for the choir!

Sing to the Eternal a new song! – Ps. 98:1

“I get more out of the service when I sing.”

The person who said that to me this past Shabbat evening was a woman I’ve known for a long time. She used to sit quietly during services, listening to the music but never participating except by tapping her toe or her fingertips. I noticed that she was singing, and asked her about it.

“I just get more out of it if I sing,” she said, “I can’t explain it.”

That’s my experience, too: I feel the service more deeply and I lose myself in it if I sing along. A lot of people don’t sing because they are insecure about their voices, and that’s a shame. Jewish prayer is a whole-body, whole-person experience, and the person who doesn’t sing misses out on a part of it. People don’t sing for a lot of reasons:

“I have a terrible singing voice” – The quality of your singing voice is not important. It might have been important in high school glee club, but it isn’t an issue for congregational singing. If you are really worried about it, sing softly, but sing.

“I don’t know the tunes” – The way most people learn the tunes is by singing along. Again, sing softly if you are unsure, but if you can sing with the car radio, you can sing along with “Adon Olam,” even if the tune is new to you.

“I don’t know the words.” – So don’t use the words! Sing “lai-lai-lai” or “dai-dai-dai” or whatever works for you. Again, if you sing along, you’ll learn the words faster.  If you are self-conscious, sing softly.

“I’d rather listen to others sing.” – OK, sometimes when that’s what I need from the service, I just listen, too. But if that’s all I ever did, it would be like showing up to potluck suppers empty-handed time after time. Congregational singing is part of the service precisely because it lifts the spirit in a way that nothing else can; it is something we do for ourselves and for one another.

If you are worried about the etiquette of congregational singing, here are some tips:

  1. Do sing, but don’t bellow. A nice rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear other people around you sing, too.
  2. If you are unsure of words or tune, sing a bit more softly.
  3. Sing with, not against the congregation. If you learned the tune a different way, that’s interesting but do not try to impose your will on others.
  4. Sing with the congregation. If the cantor or soloist is singing alone, don’t chime in; it will look like you are showing off.

When human beings sing in a group, we join ourselves together at a deep level. We take breaths together, we move together, we almost become a new, larger being. Music is a mysterious and wonderful part of liturgy; it reaches parts of the human psyche that are otherwise difficult to touch. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish worship:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. – Exodus 15:1

Music transcends time; it is old and new. It stirs memory and emotion and it moves hearts.  Do you sing in the service? Why or why not?

 

 


Va’era: It’s Not About Us

January 15, 2015

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.


Working Out Jewishly?

January 14, 2015

gym-148632_640I work out twice weekly with a trainer. I have some physical issues that make it really important that I work out, and equally important that I be supervised – I tend to mess up on my own, doing either too much or too little or the wrong thing.

My trainer has been out on maternity leave this fall. That is great news (adorable healthy baby!) but it does mean that I’ve been working out completely on my own. The good news for me is that I kept up my workouts four days a week. The not-so-good news is that I didn’t challenge myself enough, so I’m not in the shape I was in before the baby arrived. Could be worse, and at least I didn’t get injured, but I’m glad to be back into routine, working out under Brittany’s watchful eye.

It occurred to me today as I hobbled back to my car that physical training has a lot in common with a number of things in Jewish life. My prayer life and my study life go better with company, too.  When I do them on my own for too long, I get slack. Eventually I will start losing ground, getting lazy, taking shortcuts, losing the benefit of the activity.

This is why, when I can, I pray with others and I study with others. This past summer and fall I did a thorough review of Biblical Hebrew grammar with a teacher. Sure, I know all that stuff – or I did! – but going over it with a teacher who knows the fine points was a great way to work out my brain and re-sharpen my tools. The same is true for prayer. I have been busy with the hospitality project and not in synagogue as much as before. It’s time to fix that, and improve my prayer by doing more of it with a minyan.

What about you? What aspects of your Jewish life go better with company? Is there anything you feel you truly do better alone?

 


People of the Library

January 12, 2015
Jewish bookshelf

Part of my library

We Jews are often called the people of the book, but one could easily argue that we are really the people of the library. A Bible, after all, is not a single book: it is a collection of books, each separate and distinct. Even our Sefer Torah, our Torah scroll, is not a single book but a collection of five books in a single scroll.

The holy books, the s’forim, don’t stop with the Tanakh (Bible.) We have collections of midrash, sermons and stories that launch from verses in the Tanakh. We have the process of Mishnah and Gemara, in which centuries of rabbis clarify the ways in which actual lives of Torah might proceed from the document, Torah. We have mystical literature, and poetry, and law codes, on and on.

We love our books. We write books about our books, and notes within our books. If you look in a used book store or library for old Jewish books, often you will find neatly pencilled notes in the margins, references to the words of our teachers or to other books. I assembled much of my library at used book stores and sales, and I especially value the books with marginalia that came from the hands of other rabbis.

Of course, nowadays all of these books are available in electronic formats, many of them online. I suspect the ancient rabbis would have loved this technology, books that can be searched and indexed in a zillion different ways, all at the touch of a few buttons. Many different writers have pointed out that Talmud was an early precursor to hypertext, so the ancient rabbis might have felt right at home with it!

An observant Jew says the words of the Shema several times a day. It is a set of verses from Torah which we repeat many, many times over the course of a lifetime. The Shema is central to Judaism; it proclaims not only our monotheism but also our reverence for words, the words in our most beloved books:

And these words that I give you today will be upon your hearts.   Teach them to your children. Speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them as symbols on your hands and tie them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-9


Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

January 11, 2015
There's an Easy Way?

There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 


For My Cousins, the Jews of France

January 9, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s never easy to be a Jew. It’s particularly hard to be a Jew on a week like this, when I read about the terror of the Jews of France and the terrible murders in Paris. Even though I am safe in California, the Jews of France are my cousins. I feel this even more sharply right now because I am aware that some of my readers are French Jews. To them I say: Mon cœur et mes prières sont avec vous! My heart and my prayers are with you.

When I feel helpless, I resort to something I’ve written about before: living on the Mitzvah Plan. There is little that I can do directly for my cousins in France, but I will not “tune out” because the news is unpleasant. The Mitzvah Plan will keep me aware and centered.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of fear or depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

This constant busy-ness with mitzvot keeps me from foolish or evil activities. If I am busy with mitzvot, I can be ready to help the Jews in trouble (with mitzvot!) but my activities will be bound by the commandments regarding speech.

  • I will not engage in negative talk [lashon hara] unless it is truly necessary to protect another from immediate harm.
  • I will not repeat anything about another even if I know it to be true, [rechilut] again unless it is truly necessary to protect someone from immediate harm.
  • I will not listen to or believe lashon hara. That means I will change the subject or move it to safer ground when someone else is speaking lashon hara.

So, while I may point out news reports from responsible sources to others (retweet them or post to facebook or email them to another) I will make myself too busy with mitzvot to spread opinion pieces that engage in lashon hara. I will be too busy with mitzvot to engage in conversation that speaks ill of “all Muslims” – for that too is lashon hara.

There are mitzvot I can observe that will help. Before Shabbat, I can give tzedakah to organizations that work to assist the Jews in France, Jews in Europe and organizations that fight anti-Semitism. I can send letters of encouragement to friends there, if I know anyone who may be affected. I can engage in the mitzvah of taking challah. I can pray, and feel my Shabbat table connected to the Shabbat tables of Jews who are in trouble or fear.

Some reader may be thinking, “That’s not much! Those things won’t make a big difference!” but to them I say, how can you know what difference they will make? And more to the point, if I am busy with mitzvot, I will be too busy to let an evil situation drag me into actions I will regret, and into attitudes I abhor. I will not become part of the problem, which is always a danger.

This Shabbat, my table will be larger. Even though there will just be two of us sitting there (one of us has a bad cold, so actual guests are not a good idea this week) we will be thinking of the Jews of France. We will include them in our feast, in hope that some of the peace at our table will be (or will have been) at theirs.

May the day come when every person on earth can live in peace, where none will be afraid.


The Jewish Path of Grief

January 9, 2015
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.


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