Rosh HaShanah

Jewish Music: The Sounds of Our Lives

Presented to Congregation Beth Shalom, September 1 2018:

I live, year in and year out, in a constant state of emptying and letting go, of internal inventory of what resonates as my truth, and what does not: it is my nature to do so; and I gain balance and meaning through being this way.

Thankfully, I have found a vocation that requires this sort of temperance: as a Jewish Spiritual Care Chaplain. Our extensive training is that when we pay a spiritual care call to someone, we must leave ourselves outside the door. We enter the room as an empty vessel, and create a sacred space with which to invite in the Divine Presence.

My other Profession, as a Musician, is the same. One must empty themselves of distractions as preparation for standing before an audience to perform; otherwise the music will be crowded out by unresolved thoughts and feelings.

This is even more so if one is a Prayer Leader, a shaliach tzibor: the prayers will not reach the heights and depths that touch the hearts and souls of congregants: the sad places, and the memories of joyous times, or of loved ones that have passed, if one’s being is preoccupied.

At no time of the Jewish year is this work of emptying and creating sacred space

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for ourselves more important than at Selichot and during the Yamim Norai’im Days of Awe.

 

Just what defines Jewish music?

And…How do we learn to empty and renew as a pure vessel, and as Torah bids us, as newly fallen snow, to let go of the past year and be receptive to the New Year that lies ahead?

Maybe the secret can be found in the voice of the cantor on Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrey, the sound of the ancient Oboes in Temple Times, or in the sound of the Tekiah of the ram’s horn Shofar.

In other words, let’s talk about Jewish Music and how to prepare for the Jewish High Holy Days.

It is now accepted that humans had musical sounds before spoken language. That is not surprising: banging on logs or vocalizing to send and feel messages is something even animals do.

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As humans we are unique in having created languages, but words speak primarily to our logical brain centers and thinking.

We have another equally important part of our brain that works alongside the logical mind, and it responds to felt stimuli. That means emotions, but also physically felt stimuli. Music.

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Music is vibration. When we engage with music, we can turn off our busy thinking minds and let the experiential part of our bodies take over.

I know this as a Hospital Chaplain: how many times have I sat with a patient who was deeply feeling, but we agreed, couldn’t find words for what they were experiencing?

Listening to music or singing prayers is often the vehicle that moves patients through difficult experiences and allows them afterward to then articulate their needs and hopes.

­­­According to Peter Gradenwitz, an instrument, “the halil occurs in the Bible for the first time in connection with the anointment of Solomon.

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This instrument is not mentioned as having been used in the services of the 1st Temple, although one commentator thought it came from the days of Moses: in the 2nd Temple two to twelve halilim were used on twelve days of the year—at the first and second Passover sacrifice, on the first day of Passover, at Shavuot, and in the eight days of Sukkot.

Though in Modern Hebrew a halil is a flute, the Biblical equivalent has been interpreted as a double reed of the oboe family, because no flutes appear on any picture of neighboring civilizations at the time, and the Greek and Latin translators of the Bible were surely right when rendering “halil” by a word describing an oboe. In later Aramaic translations, the instrument is called an ‘abub’, the modern Hebrew word for oboe.”

These days, you can find YouTube videos of music as it was thought to have been performed in Temple Times. Go have a look.

But even before the Temples were built, King David wrote his Psalms. According to Alfred Sendrey, out of 150 psalms, 55 contain the introductory indication la-menazzeach.

Menazzeach is the singer chosen to lead the music or to officiate as precentor who probably instructed the choir, and may be considered the precursor of the Cantor or Hazzan. The first singing master of the Davidic music organization was Chenaniah. We read in (1Chron 15:22): “He was master in the song, because he was skillful”

Leaping from King David to the Exile we find a serious reference to musical instruments in Psalm 137:

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“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and also wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow within it we hung our lyres. For there our captors requested words of song from us, with our lyres, playing joyous music. “Sing for us from Zion’s song!” How can we sing the song of Hashem God upon the alien’s soil?”

The psalm is wrought with the pain of not only being exiled from Jerusalem, but with the taunts of their captors, demanding they joyously play music of Zion for them. Instead, the exiles hang up their instruments upon the willows by the rivers of Babylon. And thus, in sorrow, ends the prominence of instrumental music in Jewish worship.

When the Temples were destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism began, music didn’t go entirely away. It became the tropes and nusahs that we use in our prayer liturgy and text readings. Ask any rabbinic student: studying page after page of Talmud is almost impossible without having the familiar sing-song chant with which to read it. The verses of Torah and Haftarah are written in metrical phrases designed to be sung, not read as prose.

The ways of singing and of performing music in both Temple and synagogue became a decisive factor in the development of Occidental music; for the earliest Christian precentors were brought up in the Jewish houses of worship, and only adapted ancient Hebrew custom to a new purpose when they converted to Christianity.

The church took over the responsorial singing of the Middle Eastern modal melodies and many other Oriental musical features.

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The hand signs and accents, the trope marks, were also adopted and from these, called by the Church ‘neuma‘, which came from the Hebrew word ne’ima, for a modal song or melody, became in the Second Millennium CE the musical notations that now indicate the exact pitches and durations prescribed by a composer. Almost as we have today in sheet music.

So, over time, music left the synagogue.

Our sages, Poskim and Gaonim, decided after the Jewish Diaspora to move away from feelings and emphasize text and words; and then they decided that after centuries of music in the Temples that now carrying and playing musical instruments was deemed work that violated the Shabbat:

The logical part of our brains must have decided that! 

Music became the thing of ceremonies, of celebrations. Musicians for weddings became known as ‘song vessels’ or klei zmir. “Klezmer” became the name for our unique style of Jewish popular music.

We Jews brought our instruments and music with us to the United States in the 19th-20th centuries, and deeply infiltrated and defined everything from Jazz to pop show tunes. There is a great documentary about Jewish music in Hollywood, I think on PBS or National Geographic.

So, Jewish music became entertainment. But that too is changing. Some teshuvah, or thought about return, is happening with regard to music in synagogue by some Jewish movements. The reasons for removing it have been reflected upon and felt, and changes are slowly being made. Many synagogues, including Conservative synagogues are embracing instrumental music as an essential partner to liturgical prayers.

Tonight, this evening of Selichot, of remembrance, forgiveness, and new opportunities to be better versions of ourselves, is also an opportunity to try a new way to enter Teshuvah. Let us try through the model of music.

As I said earlier, playing music requires becoming an empty vessel. And I thought I’d been playing oboe pretty well, until I decided it was time to wean myself from the comforts of sheet music and learn to play jazz improv. The first words of the improv workshop instructor knocked me off my seat:

She said, “Jazz is about listening and allowing empty space.”

Here was the bridge between music, chaplaincy, and teshuvah.

I have talked about the first two, music and spiritual care, now. But tonight, Selichot, is particularly themed about Teshuvah.

I going to presume that most of us here know the general formula:

*Reflect back on a regrettable situation from the past year.

*Think about what went well, what went wrong.

*Try to apologize to any other person involved, keeping it simple: no qualifiers such as justifying what you did; just a straight heartfelt apology is good.

*Have that talk with God: did you have a fallout or breakup or divorce with this spiritual relationship?

*And also remind yourself of why you decided that any of these were your best choices at the time, and allow yourself to feel. That part is hard, the regret, the sorrow, the hurt for a past decision. But let the feeling wash over you, and then it will pass, as if you were left lying cleansed on a beach after surviving a stormy sea.

*Forgiving yourself or the other person is essential: this is how we become cleansed, empty vessels. This is how we grow from the willful hanging on of hurts and baggage, to the willingness to become the engaged adult. This is Selichot.

*The final step comes in the future: if in the same situation, will you do the same thing, or were you able to let go of the wrong decisions of the past and grow into the better ones for the future?

You have to be empty and listen in order to do this work of teshuvah. You have to be able to turn off the thinking and noise in your head in order to feel the remorse and move on.

We Jews have evolved a clever way during Elul of shutting off the inner talk and texting that may be distracting us: We blast on the Shofar!

 

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The Shofar is the remnant of Biblical instruments that is very much extant. No one shouts, Hey wake up and listen to God! Don’t text while praying! from the Bimah. It just won’t work. That would just be mere words.

But the Shofar, with its penetrating pure sound, makes a direct hit into our hearts and pulls us upward, releasing us from our bondage to words and thoughts.

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No one wants to sit with difficult feelings all alone. That’s rough. The good news is that you don’t have to be alone; whether it happens in synagogue or the privacy of your home. Because on Rosh HaShanah, as always, God is present. And at this time of year we think of God as our King, but not a king to punish us for our past mistakes; a watchful King, a King who wants us to be strong the way God is Strong, too. We prepare by cleansing ourselves inside and out, and then march past, not knowing how the year will be, but knowing that we are accompanied by our King.

As we’ve discovered, Jewish music is everywhere, from Jazz to Gregorian chant to Hollywood to Bnei Mitzvoth and wedding celebrations.

This year, let Jewish music be part of your renewal. Remember our rich heritage of worship with music and musical instruments.

This year, we’ll have oboe music as you enter the sanctuary for Kol Nidrey; and when you hear the Shofar during the services, let the sound cleanse your mind, and allow the process of Teshuvah and Selichot to…

…Return You Home To Who You Really Are…

L’SHANA TOVA V’ZIMRA

Solar Eclipse: ‘The End’ or ‘The Beginning’?

 

Monday’s solar eclipse in the USA provided a writing opportunity for merging my science background with gleanings from theological and faith practices.

The timing of the eclipse—falling on the Hebrew date of Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the 1st day of the month of Elul, and exactly one month before the 1st day of Tishri or Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year—was laden with significance.

The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar cycle, and each Jewish month begins on the occurrence of the new moon.

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This is different from other cultures whose calendars are based upon solar cycles, such as our civic Gregorian calendar. And it is the new moon, not the full moon, that is the significant phase of observance.

The Biblical significance of the sun and moon begin in Genesis Ch.1 v.14. God says that there shall be lights in the expanse of the heavens, to divide day from night, and:

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“והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים”

“…they will be signs, for the set aside times, and for the days and the years.”

What God has created then with the sun and moon are not merely two planetary light fixtures, but objects in the expanse of sky above that provide signals to us for the observance of seasons and other specially set or appointed times.

We observe that the moon has cyclical phases and have set the new moon as the beginning of the each new month. The crescent of new moon emerges after its disk has waned fully leaving darkness. In observance, we take time off, especially women, and look forward to the moon’s cycling back to fullness. The eclipsed moon disk signals the time of pause before a new cycle begins; it is the hidden becoming manifest; the time to reflect upon what had been and what can be; the grieving of what was unfulfilled and the anticipation of success in the future. We are given the monthly gift of renewal.

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On the science side, according to NASA a solar eclipse occurs when the moon, earth and sun are so aligned as to block one another’s light during the moon’s orbit around the earth. A solar eclipse can only happen if the new moon phase passes near one of the angular nodes of the moon’s orbit around the earth, explaining why there is not a solar eclipse with every new moon.

So the month of Elul in the USA this year has had two birth phases, the lunar new moon and the solar eclipse, both by biblical and scientific reckoning.

This solar eclipse held special spiritual significance for many. I wanted to know what that was like for different peoples.

I  studied surveys of various ethnic and cultural groups to understand. What I learned was that for cultures that base their calendars and reckoning on the sun, such as we do in civic North America with the Gregorian calendar, a solar eclipse can be an ominous event: The great object that provides light, safety, energy and food—disappears.

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For those whose culture is solar-base, even for the 2-1/2 minutes of the total eclipse, this is an ominous portent for some. Theological and liturgical explanations include: heralding the Rapture which will whisk away Christian believers and leave behind everyone else to face seven years of awful tribulations; God’s judgment upon humanity and against human sin; kings were not able to stop the sun’s disappearance, even by royal decree; Ancients filled the skies with other gods; Judaism, with its plethora of blessings for every natural event, has none for a solar eclipse.

Other traditions see the eclipse as a time for deeper introspection and prayer. In Judaism rather than providing a blessing, the Talmud gives lessons about the value of prayer at such times. In Native American traditions, commentators say their people see the time of solar eclipse as the liminal moment, the time between one world and the next. The National Museum of the American Indian set up a blog for indigenous peoples to post what their traditions are, and indeed the imagery of prayer, of self-reflection and change, of imminent rebirth, were commonalities.

This, then, is the time to pause and reflect on what has been; and upon what one may wish to step into as the light returns.

Whether your practice or culture is solar or lunar-based, the one thing in common is that prayer helps to ground one’s faith that indeed, the vanished sun or moon will indeed reappear. We have both God’s Word on that, and NASA’s.

Our ancient ancestors didn’t have NASA to explain the celestial events. Faith is the legacy they gave to us: that whatever happened in the past can be repaired as we pause in the liminal shadows and reflect on what and who we can be, in faith that the light will return.

~~Wishing You and Yours a Meaningful and Reflective Month of Elul~~

On Rosh HaShanah It’s Okay to Ask

Summer’s over, well almost. Here on Commercial Drive where I live, it’s still okay to sit at an open-air patio and tuck into a plate of jerk chicken, or sample a selection of Belgian beers with a cone of pomme frites, or sip an espresso and argue in your home tongue about soccer stats

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Last evening I indulged with half-liter of Zinfandel and baked brie with a friend; my only concession to the season was worrying about whether it would be gauche to wear a straw fedora after Labor Day, or go with my black pin-stripe topper instead. I went with the straw. Afterward, although easily my bedtime, I wandered up The Drive to do some errands at the 24hr pharmacy and took in the last touches of summer evening blues notes and sidewalk dramas before cooler weather sets in.

What did I learn this summer? There’s always a story to share:

The first thing: what a J at the end of a sentence meansJ. I started getting emails and texts with these errant J’s and assumed that spell checkers everywhere were having a strange J-worm working through them. Then I decided with humility to ask someone: did she know she’d sent me a text with a J at the end of the sentence, and what it might mean? Google answered that one; a glitch that turns email smiley faces into J’s. Okay, now we get to see an onslaught of J’s until we all move on to using our words once again to say what we meanJ.smileysymbol.com

As usual, I did learn some Big Things. I would say that for me, the image I carried this past series of weeks between being a CPE summer Chaplain Intern and my upcoming year of CPE Residency, would be that of myself at the rim of a precipice. I reckon I’ve been at that precipice my whole life, and thought myself pretty enlightened that I could look down into the chasm and be alternately amused and terrified, but remain there on that edgy place and keep fresh.

In a way, that has been a good strategy for navigating life’s unpredictability, staying in a place of panoramas and choices of views and vistas. Creating music and words, learning, settling into patterns that are familiar, going to school, studying, housekeeping, and volunteering in the community.

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What I didn’t see coming was that this seeming freedom and freshness was not providing me with comfort or answers to the reality of beginning a full time practice of presence for others after a 30-year hiatus from full time work. Merely standing at my familiar edge was not taking me where I needed to go any longer.

I needed to turn around, and here I found my place of falling: in teshuvah. Tonight the Jewish New Year starts, with its call to self-reflection and return to the land of one’s soul. In gratitude, I began to shift from the summery delights of The Drive, and tuck into this work of return.

I’ve found myself in the image of Jonah, whose story is the focus of Yom Kippur, struggling to deliver the message of imminent doom to my free flowing lifestyle. Everything was about to radically shift and I was not ready.blog.chron.com

So I ran away from the cliff edge and hid. Clearly, I was hiding in the belly of a great fish, because eventually, sensing that I was staying immobile in its great tummy and not moving along, I was belched out. That may have felt good to the fish, but now I was back at that edge and looking at the great chasm again. I realized that hiding was not a long-term solution, and it was no longer possible to merely stand on the edge and take in the view. My life was in motion and I needed to keep moving.

So, when I found myself belched up back on the ledge, I leapt in. Dop, right into the chasm. Free fall.

I don’t recall any story in Jewish text about a free fall like this. I do know about faith and the metaphor of leap of faith. As I fell, I had to let go of all of it, every intangible commodity that I had built up over the years, all my currency of choices and freedoms.

At various moments, I released some of the baggage that had kept me on the edge; it was now dragging on me as I fell. One piece was keeping my old computer. I could have done this years ago, but the safety of hanging on, not knowing what the future might look like, kept me from making such an obvious purchase for a writer and composer. There are no guarantees of success that come with the computer, so I let the free fall continue, recognizing that not having faith in what calls me forward, is a recipe for failure.

I kept falling. Next, transit. I loved being carless in New York. My love affair with transit bubble soon burst after returning funfunvancouver.blogspotto Vancouver: it’s wet here! and we don’t have subways all over the city, we have slow as molasses buses and toy Skytrains. It’s been a miserably wet and slow year on transit and slogging in the rain to get to a co-op car. All of the places I needed and wanted to go, and people to see, were waiting, and the romance of being car-less was gone. I accepted the very real limitations of the car-less life and decided to buy a car.

You might be thinking this is actually an indulgent way to start the New Year. In fact, that crossed my mind–Oy, more baggage to lose.

Here is a teaching that reassured me.

At the New Year, in our liturgy we ask over and over again from God for things; good health, food to eat, healing, success in our endeavours, long life, happiness, children: are we being selfish and indulgent? Is God bored with all these requests? Here’s what I learned from studies in chassidus:

We humans need stuff, like food and drink, marriage, commerce. We are earthly beings. Engaging in practices to become pure spirit or to dwell in un-embodied enlightenment isn’t what God has in mind for us, and I say this because God already has beings like that: God has the angels and heavenly beings.

Rosh HaShanah is on the 6th day of creation, not the 1st day. Why? the final phase of creation, humans, can remember God and God’s supremacy or kingship. And humans need all the things that were created on the first five days. So those things, whatever they are, sunlight, fish or vegetables to eat, water to drink, the stuff that we make cars and computers from, are necessary for elevating ourselves, to enable us in our humanness to help others in need, and to remember and celebrate God, the Source of all things.

It’s said in Psalm 107:5 ‘Hungry and thirsty their soul languished within them’. Standing on the edge as the perpetual observer and not eating or drinking prevents us from nourishing the soul, serving oneself and others, and elevating the everyday towards God. About 30 years ago, a psychic came up to me at a meeting and told me I am sitting on a fence and when will I get off and start helping others?

Accepting what is not going to change, I am finally taking that leap off the fence, taking the plunge that calls me to accept what gifts I have with gratitude, and move forward to learn to serve in a helping profession,

Two messages from my inbox yesterday: to ‘fall, knowing that there will be something solid on which to stand or you will be taught to fly’ (Patrick Overton);kuilapele.wordpress.com

‘Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated: you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps’ (David Lloyd George).

I thought this would be a summer of beach time or a holiday away; instead, it has been a free fall. Every time I get that stuck feeling, I remind myself of the free fall back in the chasm, it’s been the safest place yet, and I’m learning to fly.

May your year be filled with good things, health, music, wisdom, joy and healthy steps.