Jacob and Laban, Coming of Age – At Any Age
This evening I was playing a piece that enchants and inspires me every time I hear it, and it does all the more so when I make the opportunity to play it. Yet, that I can indeed once again play this piece after so many years of near incapacity, fills me with even that much more awe and inspiration.
In practice this evening, unlike in the past when playing oboe was a fond and fulfilling routine, I took nothing for granted, let no errors go uncorrected. Not the slight breaks in airflow or sound between notes, not the over-blown pitches, or bumpy steps over smooth phrasing.
I worked over, ‘wood-shedded’, my habit of wobbly hand work over the instrument’s C-D bridge, and from F down to Eb, and from B up to Eb. I did this by putting my mind into each finger, timing their placements on the keys so to match the breath; and then asked my fingers if they were was happy with the sound we were making. The conversation invited loving, gentle and correct fingerings to be made over these keys.
As the dialogue between mind and hands proceeded, each success celebrated and repeated, a new song emerged from the score in front of me. Shedding the old, habitual, chopped up phrasing that was the result of my technique’s constraints allowed the correct phrasing to emerge. I understood the piece and conversations within it as never before. A new era of music playing and appreciation was dawning;
I now played the music as written, rather than as per the limits and parameters of my technique, and the music suddenly appeared, as if stepping out from behind a cloud.
What was this special piece? ‘The Sonata for Oboe and Piano’, by C. Saint-Saëns Op. 166. I first heard it played on the 1998 recording by Joseph Robinson 10 years ago, and have been in a swoon over it ever since. It was only a fantasy to ever be able to play it myself.
Once I was a competent enough oboist and dared myself to try playing it though, it became a standard in my personal repertoire. Playing it for myself became a way to create retreat and comfort.
Tonight I had uncovered the beauty and integrity of the Sonata, much as a restoration curator of classical paintings painstakingly reveals a masterpiece hidden away under centuries of accumulated of dinge and grime.
I also had a big memory: Not so many years ago, I occasionally provided a ‘Music and Spirituality’ program for a hospital’s inpatient Psychiatry. Each time I went, there would be a different crop of inpatients in the group. The program provided a processing opportunity for them; the Psych staff attended to observe how the patients were managing.
My memory was of the time I brought a variety of sensory things for the patients to try out, some auditory, some visual. I opened the space with calming recorded music as they entered the group room and seated themselves around the large table. I also brought some cutouts of animal cards for them to select and share their thoughts on, if they wished. This seemed like a low impact way to bring comfort and familiarity into the participants’ clinical environs.
The recorded music was the Sonata. Its tentative nurturing calls, plaintive cries and delicate appoggiaturas seemed just the right thing for soothing and welcoming people over a threshold and into the activity.
As usual I did not read the patients’ files or take briefings from staff ahead of time. I prefer to work cold, coming into spiritual care ‘as is’, without preconceived notions of the care recipients or the interpretations of them from other staff. But as the music played on, I saw one of the patients, someone close to my own age who sat across the table, lock into a stiffened face. He appeared about to break into tears, but instead hung on stolidly inward, expression held flat and pale.
I stopped the music, it seemed to be a disturbance for him rather than the comfort I’d expected. So much for planning! The patients were now invited to pick 3 or 4 of the animal pictures, which they all did. Except the man with the stolid face. We were began to go around the table to share our pictures, what we picked and why, how we felt about our animals. But then the man began to wail.
Oops, now what have I done? I felt a panic, would the Psych staff be annoyed that my program was upsetting their patients? One of my spiritual care talents or gifts is to unwittingly step directly into a patient’s most guarded hurts. I learned early on that these breaks are where the healing takes place. But it still remains a surprise when the shatterings of calm happen.
I knew that my job was to help these patients open up in a safe space, but this was a huge eruption! I watched and let him bawl, and the staff and other patients did, too. When the momentum of sobs eased, there became an opening, and I asked him what had brought the emotions up.
It was the music.
Tell me more about that, I asked, and he did. He had been a professional oboist himself, and this was a piece he’d worked on and perfected, and had performed at significant events. Playing oboe had meant everything to him, which I thoroughly understood, and as he lost more and more of himself and drifted into illness, he had stopped playing oboe altogether. It was this moment, of hearing this piece, that he realized just how deeply he had sunk into illness. He had believed he’d had the ultimate loss, and would never play his beloved instrument again.
I wanted to encourage him to go back to playing again, but instead gave him room to mull over the choices he’d made and this loss. I saw from the other staffs’ faces that this was significant. My jumping to encourage him to play oboe again was the least helpful thing to do right then. In fact, that would have been about my needs, not his. The oboe playing might perhaps resume some day, once the other bigger issues that had brought him to this current level of illness were resolved.
The time left for sharing the animal cards had passed by and gone. Instead of that, the other patients listened to his story, and some also had tears. His story had stirred up recognition and painful feelings of loss for others, too. The work of opening up was done, not exactly via the white lace and doilies activity I had planned, but in a significant way nonetheless. It was time to end the session.
After the patients left the room, the lead Psychiatrist for the program came up to me to express her wonder and gratitude. That man had been ‘a hard nut to crack’, refusing to accept how unwell he was and downplaying the impact of so many accumulated losses. With him so stoic, they had not been too certain of the benefits of treatment, or his prognosis, but now they saw hope. Her gratitude was enormous.
I have no idea what happened with that patient after this breaking open; it does speak to the power of music, and of tenacity and drive of spirit.
In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob meets his future wives Rachel and Leah. He also meets his biggest nemesis, Laban, his uncle and soon-to-be father-in-law. Jacob went to work for Laban as a young man, in love with Rachel and earning a living to support his new wives and family. But gaining wives and a job and money did not make him a fully mature adult; his Uncle Laban played him for the innocent over and over again.
Jacob succeeded in outgrowing his acceptance of this demeaning treatment in two ways. First, he stopped seeing himself as a hapless youthful victim. That liberated his beliefs that Laban was his controller. Second, Jacob used his smarts to create a way to surpass Laban and gain liberation and independence; he used his knowledge of flocks and breeding to create a scheme that would outsmart Laban’s expectations.
Jacob, no longer a soft, trusting youth, was now an empowered and successful husband and a keen business man. It was not by passive inheritance that he earned the title of Patriarch for the Jewish people.
And so, Jacob models for us how to change from being a victim to becoming mature. It took several experiences of treachery by Laban before Jacob finally became activated enough to outgrow his uncle, but he took that challenge on, and did.
And so, we have choices. If we perpetually suffer in silence as the obedient child we cannot grow. Something has to awaken and liberate us from others’ fears of us responding to our strong and natural feelings of dignity and self-direction.
We must feel the pain and anger of what is making us hostage or unwell, as did Jacob in the Torah, and the oboist in the inpatient group. Judging ourselves as if there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ feelings can be ruinous. All feelings are important and must be felt and listened to in order to thrive and become self-sustaining.
Jacob had several choices once he finally felt enough frustration, and chose to be smart and confident and outdo his abusive uncle and truly become the master and overseer of his own household. We have choices, too. I don’t know what the man in the program eventually chose to do, but I do know he had a loving team of professionals and patient peers to help figure that out.
Music is emotive information, without analysis and words. Emotions allow us to directly access what is deep inside. As one experienced Psychologist related to me about talk therapy, “talk is cheap; it’s the relationship that counts”. And music is relationship: feelings expressed and shared, passed amongst composer, performer and audience.
Let us learn what we can from the music we hear, from feelings that it evokes, and how these touch us inside and can set us in motion toward better things.
Are You a Helper?
“Smother Love” “I did a Mitzvah!” “But, I did it for you!”
How we love to both giggle and wince at these quotes. Yet, we wouldn’t laugh at these familiar lines if they didn’t hold some kernels of truth.
It’s almost Rosh HaShanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, the annual designated time for reflection and change, to discuss the ins and outs how to be a Helper.
Many of us see ourselves as good people, and one way we show this is to help others. This desire to help is a virtue, really, and a basic tenet of most religions. In Judaism, we are commanded to remember the widow, orphan and stranger even as we celebrate our own abundances or successes.
But, sometimes a virtue can be overdone to the point of becoming one’s undoing! This is best described in the Enneagrams, the ancient nine points of personality typologies that help us understand what our virtues or personality inclinations are, and how those same strengths of character can also become our undoing when we don’t maintain them in balance.
My agenda for bringing up the Enneagrams and not a Jewish text right before the New Year, is to offer you a perhaps new vehicle with which you can do the inner work of review and change during this season of reflection, reconciliation and renewal.
I’ve chosen point TWO of the Enneagram, which is sometimes called ‘The Helper’, to further illustrate my message for this post, which is how to help others who may require it, in the best way. I’m particularly thinking about those of you who, due to the tragedy of the pandemic, are driven to be helpful to people who are ill, face ability barriers, or are home bound; people who may be in hospital, isolated at home, or need someone to help with chores. You may belong to a Jewish Chesed group, or church Outreach committee, or an organization that provides assistance as a volunteer or paid staff.
So, let’s explore further:
In my first two days of Chaplaincy training I had to read about the Enneagrams, and much as I complained about not wanting to study personality theories or new ways of labeling people, learning about the Enneagrams was probably the best learning and preparation for my work that I was ever to have.
I paid particular attention to point TWO (I am a ONE). This is because TWOs, the Helper type, were the people who I was often meeting as volunteers in the hospitals and on charitable deeds committees. It was hard to discuss with volunteers why rolling up your sleeves and being helpful is a good thing, but also requires training and supervision. The lessons of Fr. Richard Rohr, who captures this personality type with such clarity and elegance and compassion, allowed me to understand and better this imbalance of desire to be a helper with how the help was being offered. Here are some excerpts from his writings* about TWOs:
“As soon as they hear the little word “need,” they scrape together the last remnant of their energy to rush to help you…TWOs are extremely sensitive to the needs of others, but not aware of their own needs…“Hell hath no fury” like TWOs who suddenly realize that they are doing all the giving and not receiving what they feel they deserve in return.”
And author Sandra Maitri shares**: “They have a self-sacrificing facade: this is the proverbial Jewish mother syndrome in which she appears to be thinking of others first and putting them ahead of herself, but in fact it is really manipulating them in this way on her own behalf. The passion of pride manifests here as a hidden sense of entitlement and privilege – a conviction that others must take care of them in compensation for their martyrdom, and that they deserve to keep the best bits in the kitchen for themselves.”
This doesn’t sound very good, does it! The self-effacing and selfless, tireless person who makes sure everyone knows how they are the helping-est person on the block, or in the church, or synagogue, or hospital auxiliary…may actually have a bad temper or self-serving motivations underneath all that goodness.
There, I said it. The difficult thing, the elephant in the room, the little boy who cries out, “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!” Too often, I have seen unrestrained or untrained helpers lauded or receive awards and recognitions for their very public humanitarian achievements. But there may have been a cost for this.
Quite often, sadly, it is at the cost of those they have set out to help.
Because their helping is self-motivated or awarded with public recognition, the delivery may be more in accordance with achieving personal gratification but not in accordance with the needs of the care recipients. Especially at this time of the Jewish New Year, there may be appeals to congregants to roll up their sleeves to help. Please insure those of you responding to these opportunities also receive proper training, because your desire to help is important and we do want and need to support one another at this time of global economic and health challenges.
In our current pandemic situation, you may already be volunteering, for example, bringing groceries to an elder in a long term care home. Are you picking out what you think is best for them, or what they have carefully put on the list they’ve provided: are you picking out some trendy alkaline water you like, instead of the distilled water for nasal rinsing they’d put on their list, for example. Are you grabbing anti-bacterial wipes when what they asked for was anti-viral wipes? Or rushing to quickly drop off bags of groceries and get on with your day, something they could hire someone to do, instead of sitting with them for a personal visit.
Of course, other much worse things can happen at a corporate level, with charities scandals that we sometimes hear about, which is of the same nature as a TWO personality. This could be, for example, in a charity that is continually lauded for its disaster relief programs, while turning a blind eye to its internal lack of religious accommodation or disability integration protocols.
So, if you are wriggling in a bit of discomfort right now, that is good! You may be wriggling because of some self-awareness emerging, or because you recognize that you are tolerating or even lauding the unhelpful Helpers in your midst.
When ‘helpers’ do not realize they are not respecting the needs of care recipients, they are doing harm. When a helper is sure they know best what a care recipient needs despite the clear requests from the care recipient, they are doing harm. When a helper uses the stories of how they helped others to raise themselves up, they are doing harm. They may be on the surface doing the mitzvah of helping others, but is this truly being God’s helping hands?
Richard Rohr* shows us the way through this dilemma:
“The gift of TWOs is genuine humility, the reverse of pride. When TWOs reach the point where they recognize their real motives (“I give so I can get”), they may cry for days. When a TWO can finally cry tears of self-knowledge, redemption (healing) is near. At such moments, TWOs realize that they have perhaps damaged and injured other people while supposedly “wanting the best for them.” This is deeply humiliating. Redeemed TWOs deeply and profoundly know their innate value and preciousness and so don’t need to be continually affirmed from the outside.”
During this High HolyDay Season, the lessons of the redemption of the Helper TWO may speak to you.
It takes true courage and bravery to allow the truth to enter in, to feel the emotions that truth evokes, and understand how your beliefs and actions have affected others and may need adjustment for the better. This is what Teshuvah is: reflection and returning to our balanced Self. This is how we compassionately release ourselves from overweening ideas and actions and begin to mend our relationships and future actions for the better. This is how we grow and change and become better helpers, for ourselves and others.
L’Shanah Tovah U’metukah, May You Be Blessed With A Sweet and Good Year
There Will Still be Hidden Instruments Playing
A few weeks ago I tuned in to a much anticipated Gala Concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren.
To set the timbre of the concert, she opened by reading the following poem by the 13th century Persian Poet, Jalaluddin Rumi:
Where Everything Is Music
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
The poetry perfectly matched not only the music chosen by the guest artists, but also reflected the intrepid and authentic intentions of the IPO for deploying music as balm and reminder of good things we all have inside.
Meanwhile, from dark forces on the outside: a cyber attack completely disabled the broadcast.
Yes, a cyber attack on a Global Music Gala. When the world needed music most, ugly politics, ignored the message of music, tried to destroy it.
And so, it is fitting that the Torah reading for that week was the story of Korach.
The context of this tale in the Book of Numbers is that the Hebrews, my ancestors, had recently sent spies into the land of Canaan. Their report that the land was unsuitable, was just one too many complaints about how the world works outside of the familiar life of enslavement in Egypt. God tells them that no one from this group of former slaves will enter the Promised Land; their beliefs and mindsets were not shifting over toward formation of a mature self-determining people.
Instead, the people that enters the Promised Land will be of a new perspective, a new generation that would have no memory of life in Egypt; enslavement will not be part of their narrative memory.
And then, almost before this serious information can resonate fully in the minds of the wanderers, an insurrection is mounted. It is led by Korach, who sees everyone as equals and believes no one person should be making all the decisions and challenges the right of Moses to lead the people, saying, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?”
He does not grasp, has no understanding of, what leadership means, or why they have been turned away from the Promised Land. He only sees that Moses and God are schlepping everyone endlessly around the desert, when they have finally made it to the Land: and like a child who does not understand the need to grow and ready oneself for new responsibilities, it is making him miserable.
It might feel just like this, these days. We all want to be in the land flowing with milk and honey, we want to see our friends and families, get back to our jobs and earn money and have a good life, now and for our children. But, here we are—pandemic and isolation.
It is hard to see what the future holds. The truth is, we cannot. Instead, we must look at each day as the whole of our experience. All our familiar chores and socializing have been suspended, and by now we know that we must persevere and not rush to re-open our lives. Already, some countries or zones are reeling from an intense second wave of pandemic cases because of opening too soon. We are in a wilderness, right along with the Biblical Israelites.
We can’t do what we did in our former lives. In fact, we had lived a sort of enslavement before the pandemic. Like the Israelites our enslavement was a dependence upon things outside of ourselves. In the Hebrews’ case, they had to obey their human captors.
Some of us were enslaved to the demands of advertising and peer pressure: have expensive cars, elite schools for our children, unnecessary medical procedures, fancy nails. Like taskmasters, they drove themselves and others hard to acquire the means to have these things and be worthy. Others had to make ends meet by taking multiple jobs and leaving children for others to look after.
Now we are forced to see life stripped of these things and can make decisions about whether to resume chasing them or not. So many have lost the little they ever had to get by on, and must find a new way to make ends meet.
Also, in truth, we have always had our own self to fall back upon. Whether living solitary, or with family, or house-mates, we are living a new type of life: facing ourselves, full on. We’re not used to that: being alone on Saturday night was the worst thing possible during our formative adolescent years. But maybe it’s time to change that, too.
Being alone was billed as ‘scary’. Those thoughts you used to avoid are now dancing around your consciousness all the time with no distractions from work or shopping or parties, as before. Like the wandering Israelites, we have left the enslavement behind, but also have not achieved freedom. Like Korach, we are leaving the familiar past, but not seeing what is ahead or have a destination–yet.
We have this idea that there is a ‘when things get back to normal’ or ‘things open up again’, just as did the spies in the Bible. But, in reality, we have left all that behind.
We have to transform that thinking, from the inside out and see the new land for what it truly is, or end up like Korach, swallowed up by the great gorge of our fears.
There are some previous pandemics to look back at for clues about where this will lead us as a global community. But what about our own personal trajectory in all this? How do we emerge ready for the new land we will find ourselves in?
Some of the answers will come from during this time of peeling away distractions and allowing deep listening for what lies beneath.
Look back at the poem by Rumi:
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
When a musician plays music, the instrument is a tool, and what they play, the music, comes from deep engagement with the heartbeat of everything. One of my oboe teachers and mentor, Joseph Robinson has said,
The best moments have been breathtaking, transcendent and unforgettable, and each reminds me of what [Marcel] Tabuteau once said when I asked him whether he could remember any best moments in his long career…Pausing for a moment and looking toward the Alps, he said, ‘There were a few good notes … and they are still ringing.’*
Everything is music, as Rumi says; musicians use their instruments to capture these ineffable notes, to share the music.
You can do this, too–Yes, you.
Here’s how: In your present you have unfinished business, financial troubles, loss of loved ones, illness, grief. Don’t forget to look at what resources you do have.
…and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
You too, can capture the music. It’s okay to be hidden. The Israelites had to stay in a wilderness with nothing familiar to anchor to, in order to coalesce into a people with an identity; with roles, structure, and distance from the desire to go back to how things used to be.
Finding a new angle of repose takes time; finding the music comes from listening, and from clues and from integrating the information. Write them down, share with family, make art, engage a counsellor.
We are in a time of broken and burned up instruments; just let the former structures that played your tune go and yield to the sounds that you hear.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
Oh, yes, and as for the cyber attack on the IPO Gala Concert? the IPO concert immediately became available for free until the end of July, on FaceBook.
*Robinson wrote in ‘The Wilson Quarterly’, in 1995.
Last night I began watching a film about Grey Owl, an Englishman who lived with, and as one of, the traditional Canadian indigenous peoples in the early 20th century.
My interest in the film was twofold: one, that Grey Owl was a conservationist whose writings had become popular amongst those of us in the ‘Ecology’ movement of the 1970’s in the USA.
The other draw was from my growing desire lately to touch the earth again.
During social isolation, which is still going on in my community, I have been reluctant to venture outside. With my compromised immune system, it has seemed wiser to stay indoors in my apartment where I have control, as much as one can have, of all the germs, where they are, who they are from, and the ability to avoid or remove them. Whereas going outside means I am subject to others’ rules about how they manage, or don’t manage, their germs.
But, the safety of staying inside, with all my various activities and hobbies and plugged-in entertainment devices, had begun to take its toll on my spiritual wellbeing. I looked at photos and videos of places I’d been over the past year pre-lockdown, and felt better and inspired by the memory that such places exist and that I was in them. There were pictures of the Southern California desert in bloom and of my home there, and of Italy where I spen a month of respite in a monastery last summer. The cool desert breezes and swaying plants, the rushing waters over the rocks and under the old Italian town’s bridge were healing. They touched memories of both my body and the experiences in those locales.
I watched the Grey Owl film with a bit of trepidation: was he a real Indian or a white man passing himself off as one, and did it matter anyway? Before finding an answer, though, my own memories stepped into that conversation space.
As a little girl, I was captivated by anything Indian. I wore my pink Annie Oakley cowgirl skirt, vest, boots, hat and holster so diligently that I would not even take off the boots or guns for bedtime, and regularly spent hours rocking on the spring rocking horse on our backyard patio in my pink cowgirl garb.
But when all the kids got together to play ‘cowboys and Indians’ as was the suburban norm in the 1950’s, I always had to be an ‘Indian’.
I would fight my bravest fight, which mostly consisted of belly-crawling along the grass to surprise the ‘cowboys’, and then obligingly get shot, and roll, tumbling all the way down the grassy lawn embankment. Then I would stay there looking up at the sky; even after all the other kids finished shooting their cap guns and calling ‘blam blam, you’re dead’ to each other and mosey off to get a cool glass of Kool-Aid from someone’s mom. But I stayed there on the grass, gone to another place.
My memory of that place is a woods, an autumn and northern country woods, with thick trees, green leaves on the branches, brown and ochre and yellow ones on the ground. I would tiptoe quietly, my brown skin and deerskin breeches soundless as I padded along in my soft low cut moccasins. The breeze was cool as it blew through my black-brown braids and I followed some call or presence. I felt a deep pain, so deep and desperate. “I must save my people!” was pulsing me along the path through the thicket. “I must save my people” I would stand brave and tall, then kneel, and the words would envelope me.
Then I would be back once again, lying face up in the suburban lawn, now a bit itchy from the little gnats and grass blades on my skin, roll over heavily, and go try to find out where the other kids had gone.
I have been told that children of that age, about 3-4 years old, can’t have such ideas about saving others and that their frame of reference can only includes themselves. So much for Psychology! But the power of those dreamtime experiences from then on, defined my life.
In grade school, my grandfather would take me to the little museum in Santa Barbara, where we would push the button on the display box to make the rattlesnake shake its tail, ptssssss–t!, and he would laugh and poke me to make me jump to experience the snake’s attack. Then after that warm-up, we would go out to the grounds and walk the trails through the vegetation; he and I called them ‘the Indian trails’. Back at home, my grandparents bought me ankle bells to dance in and for the most part indulged my ‘Indian’ role playing.
As I grew a bit older, I started going to Girl Scout sleep away camp and ate up all the experiential activities of building cooking fires and cooking, sleeping outdoors in a sleeping bag under the big sky of the far away national forest where the camp was located.
Eventually, I was invited to join their elite ‘survival skills’ program, and moved on to learn how to build traps and snares, skin and cook our catch, identify plants that were edible or toxic and how to eat them, and night vision and stalking skills. Our final exam was to hike to a remote area with no facilities and no food, only a blanket and a knife and a cup and our own hand-carved spoon, and a hatchet for the group to use.
We stayed 3 days. We behaved much like The Lord of the Flies! except we got hungry, so those of us who were in tune with the concept that we really did have to forage and trap for food if we wanted to eat, got busy. In the end, we had some okay Lupine beans that we leached with boiling and cold water baths, and some meat. We had some meat because ‘Sioux’, as I was now called, responded to another camper’s shriek that there was a rattlesnake; I corralled it and chopped its head off when it tried to strike me. (I can tell this secret now, because my parents are no longer here to know about it!)
The next day we went back down the steep trail by the waterfall, to our counsellors. I was a bit of a hero, and the counsellors were very stoic when hearing that I’d killed the rattler. I’m sure there must have been some panicky feelings going on inside, knowing a camper had done that without adult supervision, but that was what they put us up to!
Upon return to camp, we cleaned up, which we all badly needed. That night was our last one together. We had a campfire and awards ceremony. In the spirit of maintaining Indian tradition we were each given a coloured pony bead for each skill we had mastered, strung on a multi-coloured cord. While mine wasn’t the longest string of beads, it came close with only 2 missing; but it had the only long jade green one, for killing a rattlesnake. The cords held a copper arrowhead pendant, and we also received a deerskin feather pendant necklace, for remembrance of our time together. I still have them, complete with long jade green bead.
That was in 1968.
Today, Fathers Day, I looked once again at the photo of my father, sitting perched over Half Dome, his legs dangling from the top, shirtless and certainly a part of the whole; and nothing like the dad I knew who commuted 4 hours every day into downtown Los Angeles when he wasn’t far away at some salesman’s convention. When I found this photo last year, some of the mystery was resolved.
The other clue came last year and was from my updated DNA test results. I am not 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, like most of my friends, but 92%: 7% is from an area that covers a remote Siberian area, the Yamal Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The native inhabitants of these areas are the Nenets or Sami peoples. My mother used to tell me that my grandfather’s mother looked Chinese, and so I am now guessing that there is some tethering of my ancestors with this earth bound sense of myself through true genetic inheritance.
Although my home is now an urban setting, the urge to touch the earth remains. My day today strolling the grounds, touching flowers and pine cones, walking along shrubbery, and taking photos of flowers and berries to look back at, has been grounding for me. Although we are unsure of our future abilities to mingle socially, we can rest assured that Nature will continue to anchor our innate humanity.
My father loved his job with the Forest Service in Yosemite. He referred to it often as we grew up but not so much as he got older. Instead, he designed numerous cruise vacations to enjoy with my mother, and at home, curated the thousands of photos and mementos from them. He died unexpectedly from pneumonia, caused by a chest cold he picked up on their last ocean cruise, ten years ago.
Perhaps his excitement with packing his daughter’s duffel bag for overnight camp so many years ago was more than just a parental task: perhaps it had been his chance to touch the earth once again.
Thunder and Music
Tonight I am breaking the silence.
It has been a year and a half since my last post on ‘The Compassionate Oboe’, and tonight I begin to write again.
Last night, I got out my big-sound oboe, my Yamaha 841L, my beauty that I can play as round and fully and deeply as I want; it is my instrument to make a Big Sound for outdoor playing. Tonight, it is my partner when the piercing voice of the oboe needs to be heard over the din of pain and chaos.
But, about my absence, where have I been? Where have we all been these past 17 months?
The answer begins with the spectacular thunderstorm began outside last night, a perfect response to the plaintive call of people in pain calling for healing, and needing to hear a response.
Just the same way, two years ago before my absence, I underwent a major thoracic surgery. Some ligaments from my diaphragm had to be removed in order to release their pinching off the blood flow through the major artery that feeds my abdominal organs. I responded to those cries of organs beginning to fail and moved to the USA to have the surgery.
I did not know if recovery from such an invasive surgery could include playing the oboe again.
Then a few months later, just before my last Blog entry in September, my mother called me to be with her. She was dying and had begun to have home hospice care.
I flew north to stay with her, something I hadn’t done for years. My mother sat opposite me in her favourite swivel chair, a French wine cup balanced in hand, her belly swollen from the effects of leukemia on her spleen. The fire churned in her gas hearth and it was cold outside. She had never shared any of her inner thoughts with me before, but during this time together, her last weeks, she accepted and wore the mantle of elder, imparting her acquired wisdom to her surviving heir, as one is wont to do at the end of life.
“I’ve seen a lot”, she grimaced as she rocked harder in the chair, “grew up in the Great Depression, World War II, the 60’s and 70’s, but I never imagined things could ever be as bad as they are now.” She shifted her position, her breathing heaved and rasped but she spoke on. “We did so much to make things better–civic work projects made by the government to pull ourselves out of the Depression; fighting in those horrible wars, the Nazis. Then we had Vietnam and the fights for Civil Rights and Equality. Now look at what it’s all come to!” She paused to stare and conquer her breath. “The world is controlled by the wrong people, all our hard work is being undone.” Her voice changed to a sobering timbre now. “I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see any more of this.”
That was the end of her speech, and I felt so sad with her and for her. She indeed had worked hard; I recalled her grass-roots meetings at our home for liberal candidates in the 1970’s; her proudly taking me out of school to see Senator Eugene McCarthy speak; and how she showed us to not just hear about the plights of others in the news, but to roll up our sleeves and openly fight for causes we believed in.
And it was now about six months since my surgery. I had packed along my quieter oboe, my lyrical Covey, as a way to centre myself during what I knew would be an emotional visit. One evening, as she sat rocking in her chair by the fire, I quietly came in and set up my stand and music. I chose the most important pieces to me, and knew her fondness of classical music was deep. The pieces were Saint-Saens’ Oboe Sonata and Godard’s ‘Legende Pastorale’. I adored these pieces and had over the years striven to play them as well as my teacher, Joe Robinson, even playing along with his album recording. This time, I abandoned the student-mind and played the music; because music, this music, needed to be present here.
It seemed that some great shift happened during the playing. She never spoke, we were both silent, and I put my music away. I don’t remember what happened next, but all the years of vexation over my decision to play the oboe instead of the flute and so many other divisive causes seemed gone, and were replaced with the understanding that music had happened. A truce and peace emerged.
And then, last night, came the same.
I watched the news, the American news and saw what I already knew. I had gone back to the USA in 2017 to be in the quiet desert near where I grew up, and took advantage of the opportunity to have the life-saving thoracic surgery. Along with my mother last autumn, I realized that America had changed too much for my comfort.
I came back to Canada.
Part of my reason for returning to Canada was the violence in the United States. Not just recent politically motivated violence, but also the mindset that allows people to carry guns, literally or figuratively, to sort out disagreements, mirroring American values still extant from frontier tales and Wild West films. Being called un-American is just such a gunshot.
These were also the concerns of my mother. In her day, the protests effected political change and a peace-minded consciousness-raising for America. This time, though, America is not faring any better than other countries with their political problems.
As I watched the American protestors on TV I felt relief at the emergence of peaceful protest out of the more violent activity of the weekend; the images were so reminiscent of 1960’s on TV. With one exception: I do not see the same concerned reaction by the President or White House Administration.
Carried away with the energy and passion of the images, I longed to be there. I wanted to protest, too.
But I am here in Canada and the border is closed. Meanwhile, my move-in plans are stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. I live with piles of orphaned books and office supplies, because I cannot buy or bring in new furniture. But my oboe paraphernalia is unpacked, accessible and curated.
I stare at the grand Manhasset music stand set up for playing, at the music books and boxes of reed-making supplies that I had lovingly sorted for occasional use.
On Sundays I play a small concert of familiar tunes, ending with ‘O Canada’ in solidarity with others singing and playing at noon nationwide, to acknowledge our frontline health care workers.
That little concert is also the thread that keeps me alive and well in general and in particular, as an oboist.
But last night, outrage spilled over in me. In part it was over the huge expense of my new home paired with still living like a hobo out of boxes. Part was the outrage that political leaders could ignore science and common sense and forgo proactively taking care of citizens when the obvious signs of the coming epidemic were there in China months ago.
Thankfully, my personal inner outrage and pain were mirrored on the TV screen: I was not alone. We’ve all had too much. Too much anger with systems that are breaking down, with the racial indignities that are still rampant, with the replacing of facts with political egos: and in America, with a President who makes threats against its citizens’ safety and rights to gather and protest peacefully.
I was so pleased to see the peaceful yet powerful approach that was being taken and with the contained and focused encouragement by the mostly young leaders.
Their determined message for change surged through me, a charge felt beyond words. The years of confusion, of who I am and what my work is post-surgery, now became clear: Music.
My Manhasset was already set, and out came the Yamaha.
I played, full, big, and passionately for all to hear, my balcony door wide open to the world. I began with the Beatles, because we all know they were the sound of the 60’s: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘When I’m 64’. Then came a few more tunes: ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Kum Ba Ya’, and Dvorak’s ‘Largo from The New World’.
Afterward, I gave my oboe its seasonal bore care with sweet almond oil and put it away. I felt an inner calm resume that had been lost for a very long time, for years perhaps.
Remarkably, just as I began to settle back onto my rented sofa, Nature took her turn to let go, too. An hour-long thunder and lightening show, complete with pelting rain and hail, seemed to validate the outpouring of pent up energy seen across the globe.
I swaddled all my oboe things away for the night, ready to be played tomorrow; because with those loud blasting cries, I was reborn.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.
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!
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.
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
Spring Cleaning Items for Passover: Gossip and Privacy
The season of Pesach (Passover), often called The Feast of Freedom, provides an opportunity for seeking out and removing any tangible and spiritual burdens we may be carrying.
The Torah instructs us that every year we shall eat only unleavened bread and re-tell or re-enact the hasty departure of the Hebrew people from enslavement by Pharaoh in Egypt at Pesach time. We observe this commandment by removing ‘fluff’, or chametz in our homes; things that have fermented or leavened beyond their simple state over the year, as a way of creating a physical memory of how to pare down to simplicity and basics. We can then become less burdened and more receptive to the greatness of simplicity, enjoy the grandeur of Nature, and each other.
Let’s look at two related areas of chametz for which most of us could use a good Pesach Spring Cleaning: Gossip and Privacy.
First of all, what is Gossip? Is it merely idle conversation to pass the time with friends? Or do we use gossip as a transaction currency? For example, currying favor by suggesting we have some ‘material’ about a boss at work, or about a neighbor. Some of us want to attract a circle of friends through gossip that defines who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.
This doesn’t read as being very nice, does it? Well, research about social intelligence bears out the fact that we use gossip as a social transaction currency. Gossip can be a lucrative commodity, and we all exchange that commodity as gossip currency at times. Some of us are more strategic about this than others, but nonetheless we all do it.
Judaism recognizes that we gossip and also the seriousness of harm done by gossip. Three types of gossip are defined in our texts: Slander–LaShon HaRa, literally translates as ‘the evil tongue’; Lying–Motzi Shem Ra; and Tale Bearing–Rekhilut.
Slander does not involve lying, it is the damage to the person’s reputation that is the harm done by sharing truth inappropriately. Slander means making a true yet derogatory statement about another person. An unjustified derogatory remark about another person, the evil tongue wagging, even though it is the truth, is forbidden.
Lying about somebody, making false statements about them, is called defamation of character (Motzi Shem Ra) and the harm done is self-evident.
Rekhilut (Tale Bearing) is like a peddler (Rokhel) buying from one person and selling to another. The tale peddler hears a remark, wants to profit from it, and then goes to tell the person spoken of what was said about them; this leads to harm done via the conflict and controversy that arises, with some anticipated benefit for the gossip peddler who spread the tale.
What is the difference between Slander and Tale-Bearing? Slander is defined as making a derogatory but true remark about somebody, while tale-bearing means going to the person who was spoken of and reporting this fact to him, saying, “So-and-so said such-and-such about you.”
In the Jewish perspective, gossip raises a whole class of ethical and moral concerns because the root intention of gossip is to harm a reputation. In the Torah, one’s reputation is their name, and if their name is tarnished or destroyed, so is that person or clan. For example, when Moses speaks to the burning bush he asks God, “What name shall I give?” He doesn’t ask God “what powers or weapons should I say I have”, or “what punishment shall I tell them I’ll bring”. Moses asks “whose name shall I give for who sent me?” And God answers, “Yi’h’yeh asher Yi’h’yeh” I Am that I Am. God’s Name=Reputation is God’s Power. Although Pharaoh believed his magicians were as powerful as Moses’ God, in the end God’s reputation as powerful was upheld at the closing of the Sea of Reeds upon Pharaoh’s army.
We each have our own unique reputation and name. Next to murder, the most destructive thing we can do to someone is destroy their name. Think about this. It is said that if what you spread is true, it’s gossip: if what you spread is false it is like murder. Just a little misinformation can sully forever how a person is perceived by others. Rumors or private matters spread in the public domain ruin businesses and politicians.
Publicizing what is private is powerful medicine. Navigating in close quarters requires maintaining a delicate balance between being who we know we are and appearing to be what others want us to be.
Gossip invades privacy. The Jewish model for building healthy communities that preserve privacy comes from the story of Balaam, who blessed the Israelites, rather than cursing them as Balak had ordered him to do, in Num 24:2-5:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!
The Gemara, Talmudic commentary (Bava Batra 60a), gives Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation:
What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.
The Talmud Oral Law, in Bava Batra II, tells us how this passage of Torah Written Law is applied to a situation in which privacy is violated by poor alignment of adjacent homes:
If the damage occurs immediately, or it begins to take effect immediately and its effects gradually increase, it is considered as though he has shot his neighbor with his arrows, and the neighbor can object to his activity. This applies to damage that is caused by one’s actions to the neighbor’s property, e.g., his walls, pit, and various plantings on his property, as well as damage that is caused by noise or foul odors.
In this Blog post about cleaning out our inner and outer lives for Pesach we learn that gossip invades privacy and murders the victim’s reputation; and invading a neighbor’s privacy with loud music is like shooting that neighbor with arrows.
Do we need to seek out gossip or can we simply go next door and ask how our neighbor is doing? do we need to have our radio or TV on mega speakers, or can we tone down our technology and enjoy the simple beauty of birdsong in our yards?
Here are a range of Passover Spring Cleaning tips, from physical to spiritual actions, to help with defining and removing the leavening that burdens:
*Make time to review what you own or possess. Compare that list to what you really need. Find ways to let go of the chametz; give things to charity, apologize to a neighbor. It’s like cleaning the caches in your computer, which also runs better when the caches are cleaned regularly.
*Jewish Prayer: Central to liturgy is the Amidah silent devotion, said three times a day. At its close, is this meditation about gossip: הש”ם נצור השוני
…Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking bitterness; protect my soul from those who would slander me; I shall present myself, humble as dust. Frustrate the evil plots of others upon me; may their plots be as dust, protect me from them; Do this for the sake of Your Name; of Your Eternalness; of Your Holiness; of Your Torah, in order that we may be delivered to Your Embrace…
*Watch your own courtyard and enter others’ with respect. If they let you know that your radio or TV is too loud, turn it down; don’t continue to ‘shoot them with arrows’ with your TV. You might like the sounds of nature in your yard, too.
*Curiosity. This is nature’s best remedy for relationships. If you are not sure who someone is, ask them. If they seem different than you, engage them with friendly questions though your genuine and natural curiosity rather than ask someone else and rely upon hearsay or gossip that may or may not be true.
Feel motivated to dig in and clean? That is great! Me too.
May we all grow and thrive through knowing one another.
Shabbat Shirah: drama, drums and dancing*
“And Miriam the Prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took the drum in her hand; and all the women went forth after her, with drumming and dancing”
from the ‘Song of the Sea’, Ex. 15:20
Torah is filled with mechanisms for bringing us closer to God through sacred words and music. Shabbat Shirah, which is on January 27th this year, is a special Shabbat for focusing on the power of music in celebration and with re-creating sacred moments.
Here is what the Song in Ex. 15:1-21 looks like in a Torah scroll; notice especially the unusual layout and design:
We can tell from this special text arrangement that this is a song rather than prose.
The Song of the Sea can be read, chanted or sung. For verses 1-3, there is a tune that is not the regular Torah trope; it is a bittersweet musical mode, designed to reflect the gravity of receiving redemption from Egypt at a high cost to the Egyptians.
This bittersweet melody brings up a personal memory for me; that of a moment in the Jewish weekday service.
It is a moment of reliving the revelry and the sadness of the scene at the Sea of Reeds. The sacred sound that comes to me is of the voices of the staff and students of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Cantorial School in New York, where I studied Sacred Music.
Every Wednesday morning our ‘mifgash and minyan’ service was the place where we Cantorial students and staff met, and prayed, in our own space. I recorded precious moments of sacred sound, of these klei kodesh (holy vessels), singing as a minyan ‘off pulpit’ during one of our services:
Is there a melody, or song, or nign (chant sans words) that transports you, too, into a sacred space?
Therein is the power of music and song; it creates sacred time and space, whether in a house of worship or while out running errands.
Sometimes in my work as a Spiritual Care Chaplain, I might hum this melody or maybe another nign, to transport myself into a prayerful or grounding mode between seeing patients, on my way to meetings, or during my breaks. These chants are a simple, portable, and direct conduit from everyday busy-ness to a different dimension–of sacred place.
Now as we come to the end of the Torah’s passage of the Song of the Sea, the Torah gives us another treat.
We read how it was the women who sang the closing lines of the Song. Led by Miriam the Prophetess, the Israelite women all take up drums and dance, singing the closing words of the song.
Torah tells us Miriam was a Prophetess, in fact that is her name, מרים הנביאה Miriam haNevi’ah in 15:20, Miriam the Prophetess; then after that she is called אחות אהרון Aharon’s sister. Her relationship to Moses is not mentioned here.
Torah describes how Miriam picked up a drum, and the next thing, all the women do the same; and following after her, drumming and dancing, they sing the words that close the Song of the Reed Sea in 15:21.
The next musical memory of the Song of the Sea: from my year at JTS, at Commencement.
Truth be told, I was not in the Cantorial School to become a pulpit Cantor, but to learn the traditional music of the Jews so that I could adapt it to musical instruments.
Nonetheless, they made me learn to sing! and there I was, with lots of coaching and mentoring, an Alto in the JTS choir, singing my heart out alongside some of the world’s finest Cantors.
At Commencement, the newly ordained and invested rabbis and cantors queued up on the marble stairs inside the great JTS inner atrium for a group photo. Someone started a nign from the Song of the Sea, ‘Ozi v’zimrat Ya’, from 15:2.
Here is the melody, sung in 2015 in Jerusalem at a gathering of Women of the Wall:
My next encounter with the Song of the Reed Sea
My summer with JTS included a Chaplaincy Internship with the VA Hospital in Brooklyn. Having a Middle-Aged–Jewish–Woman, as a VA Chaplain was a stretch for some of my male peers and teaching supervisor! But when the VA Staff Chaplains heard I was a Musician, they snapped me up, to facilitate a weekly ‘Music and Spirituality’ group for the VA’s new Substance Abuse Rehab program.
The participants in this program were amazing. All of them, except one Jewish man, were Black or Hispanic; the Jewish Veteran sadly had lost his connection to Judaism over the years. Most of the dozen men were Veterans from Vietnam, fifty year ago. Somehow they survived long enough to make their way to this VA Hospital and this rehab program. They had been coping and using drugs for 50 years.
My first session with the guys, after having been abandoned to sink or swim by the staff Chaplains, began with my playing a powerful oboe solo piece, Britten’s ‘Pan’:
The piercing, plaintive sounds told them I knew the territory. After breaking the ice, they talked—a lot. Each week I tried something different: they never knew what the little Chaplain Lady was going to do next!
It became time for me to put off my fear of singing for them. Mulling over what I could pull off, I realized that the best thing was to lead what I know; always a good thing for an artist. I chose two nigunim and one of them was ‘Ozi’, the same tune as with the Women of the Wall.
I chose these Hebrew nigunim rather than a familiar song in English. I did not want the words to interfere, I wanted them to sing with their own heartsong-voices.
I put the transliterated words on the blackboard and sang it once for them, then invited them to join me:
Ozi vezimrat yah; vayehi-li lishu’ah
First a baritone sang along, then a couple more hesitant voices. The baritone got stronger and shortly we were all singing, as if a mighty locomotive had slowly chugged out of the station and was now steamrolling full throttle down the tracks.
Soon, they were on their feet, and then I knew it was time for me to step back and get out of the way. The song from the Torah now took on the timbre of a Sunday morning Harlem Gospel Church chorus. They bent, and shimmied, clapped in time, singing, fully liberated– rocking the room as it filled with warmth and love. The love train barreled down the tracks.
I now engaged the most important lesson in Davvening (Prayer) leadership training: how to bring a train like this safely back in to the station! I resumed singing with them, bringing in hand gestures to match theirs, then slowed them down, then sat them down, then wound down the volume and tempo until the train puffed to a rest.
The room was silent. They knew from experience what to do next. The camaraderie from the singing had created a new sacred space to share with each other, and heal.
I can’t say that I am a singer or a successful pulpit Cantor, but I can say that I know how to adapt the power of music and the stories it carries as a medium, for creating healing opportunities.
As Karl Paulnack, head of the Boston Conservatory of Music, tells us through a lecture to his new students:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.”
Those of us who are musicians, including Miriam haNevi’ah, understand that what we do is intangible; and thus will seldom be given the honors it deserves.
In today’s Song of the Sea, Music and Women are given the Crowns and Honors. Shabbat Shirah shows us that the most celebratory moment in our history was captured in song, and sealed with the music and dancing of women, led by a Prophetess.
*D’var Torah Sermon, given Shabbat Shirah January 27 2018 at Congregation Beth Shalom, CA
Lights, Candles, Chanukah!
It’s the penultimate day of Chanukah, the seventh of the eight days of celebration. Last evening, just as sunset was approaching, I set up and lit my new Chanukiah (Chanukah candelabra) to enjoy its warmth and welcoming light. The candle flames, at once familiar and comforting, glowed in their new arrangement, reminding me of many other firsts this year: that I haven’t bought a new Chanukiah in decades; this is my first celebration of Chanukah as a resident of the USA since I was a teenager; and, in keeping with life in a very remote region, this was my first time buying a Chanukiah by online ordering.
Yet, the many themes to this חג האורים Holiday of Light remain comfortingly constant over time. After lighting the candles, I always look forward to sitting next to them; this year it was by a little table at my front window to enjoy the many images that arise as the burning candles glow.
Here are some gleanings of those Chanukah reflections:
A Festival of Light. It gets dark early now, and it is truly dark here in this official Dark Sky Community. No street lamps or outdoor lights are allowed here unless they are blunt and point downward. The natural rhythms of night and day are much more activated. The impact of how special and sacred lights may have been in Maccabean times is keenly experienced here. Stars explode forth and blanket the sky when the moon is new or waning; animals are busy with owls hooting, coyotes yelping, bats squeaking; bedtime shifts from midnight to 9pm.
Lighting candles reminds us of our human ability to adjust the rhythms of nature, but not nature itself.
Tradition! Just like in the song from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, lighting the candles at the appointed time of year and singing the special blessings provides a familiar landmark in the onward unfurling of the unknowns that lie ahead. Even still, as I hold the lit shamash candle and gently touch each candle in the proper order, a liminal time machine transports me back into the amazed and agog infant/toddler, brown eyes brightly reflecting the magical flames of the pretty rainbow candles, taking in the warmth and light when so dark and cold outside, the smiling faces of family as they watch our little countenances transfixed with the first rapturous gasp of the glowing candles, the familiar songs, and Chanukah foods.
Time travels forward, but for humans, it goes in spirals, with each new year forward replaying familiar holiday cycles and bonds.
Rededication. This for me is the core of what Chanukah is. What does that mean, rededication? The story of the Maccabees tells us about how these brave warriors prevailed over Antiochus IV and recaptured the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus had enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews, such as worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and kosher dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. And worse, many Jews had adopted Hellenistic ways, wanting to assimilate rather than endure harsh punishment. The Maccabees prevailed and were able to remove the pagan idols, foods, and installments, and restore the Temple to its Jewish ritual purity.
The underlying theme is that the Jews themselves had left behind their own traditions and either heeded the siren call of the indulgent Hellenistic lifestyle or allowed themselves to be coerced into it. Taking exception to this, the Maccabee Hasmonean family, some think of them as the ‘Jewish Taliban’, were strong-handed in their ways of upholding Jews to their Jewish values. Yet, if it weren’t for that zeal, Judaism may have become assimilated and absorbed beyond recognition.
They fought to keep Judaism pure and as a living faith tradition. Did they succeed? Well, look what happened to the Seleucid and Greek Empires (hint: they’re gone). Jews are still around and lighting Chanukah candles to celebrate the miracle of surpassing that danger.
By reflecting on the benefits of observing our Jewish traditions, even if they may be obscure or droll, we can stand up to and say “No” to diversions.
We can recall the value of our traditions and rededicate ourselves to our core values of study, giving charity, and doing good works in the community. We can resume with fresh dedication our core practices of how we worship, eat, dress, care for one another, and observe Shabbat.
As each new year of Chanukah arrives, it simultaneously creates new lights and rekindles old memories; it mingles stories of heroic and dedicated ancestors with modern day challenges to preserving Jewish traditions. What is familiar helps us to undertake the new.
Whatever your spiritual grounding is, be it a religion or faith, nature, or a chosen community of fellowship, take this time of winter night to remember and recall, and rekindle you inner sparks of light.
!חג אורים שמח
Happy Chanukah, Holiday of Lights!
Va Yetse: And He Went Forth
Yaakov (Jacob) left Beersheva and headed toward Haran. When it became dark he placed a stone for a pillow and lay down to sleep. Then he had a dream of a ladder, its base on the ground and the top reached up toward heaven. God’s Angels were going up and down on it.
In many theologies, from Taoism to Judaism, humans are the link between Heaven and Earth. This is apparent in how the ladder has its feet on the ground and top in the heavens. The link between these realms is Yaakov.
As a sleeping dream, Yaakov then sees God and hears God telling him that Yaakov and his descendants will inherit the land upon which he sleeps. The waking Yaakov still has a sense of God’s Presence over the next 20 years.
During those 20 years Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan (Laban). At first, Yaakov works toward having the hand of Rahel (Rachel) in marriage. But Lavan tricks him and provides his other daughter Leah. Although Yaakov can marry Rahel a week later, he must work another seven years to pay for her hand. After those 14 years, when Yaakov is ready to leave with his share of livestock, Lavan creates a complicated system of accounting of them. It takes Yaakov another six years of tending and breeding before he can take the right portion, those animals with marks or streaks.
This story begs the question, how much do we allow ourselves to be in apprenticeship, servitude, or manipulation by our superiors before we learn to overcome and surpass, and regain our individuality?
Yaakov was spoken to and appointed by God, yet for 20 years he worked as a servant to Lavan. Eventually, Yaakov reaches the point of seeing his own value and wanting to resume the destiny set out by God, to inherit the land where he lay in Haran.
Fate interceded. Yaakov was waylaid by Lavan. This was a necessary step in the formation of Yaakov’s destiny. Under the servitude of Lavan, Yaakov developed the understanding that he must move on. He then also learned how to master his Fate and become a mature and confident strategist, necessary skills for leadership of his family clan and nation of descendants.
I am reminded of the story of the disciple who dutifully moved stones for his Master as requested as part of his training. He grew tired of moving the stones and asked when he would advance from apprentice to master. His Master laughed, pointed and said, “Move more stones!”
We believe it is a Master, teacher, or employer, who dictates when we are finished with our education. And although sometimes we must earn a certificate or degree, we still find ourselves going back for more education, CEUs, PD, and even higher level degrees. You will continue to carry stones until you are ready, as Yaakov was, to forge ahead with your purpose, work or destiny.
Yaakov spent time growing from resentful youth, into a man who could use the knowledge he’d gained from years of tending Lavan’s flocks to reward himself with the fortune he’d earned for Lavan. Even Lavan acknowledged that Yaakov was lucky for him: his flocks and wealth were nothing until Yaakov showed up.
In addition to leaving as a wealthy head of a very large household, Yaakov had confidence. You might even say Hutzpah. Lavan, angry that Yaakov left without his knowledge, was cajoled into having a treaty land pact with Yaakov that was satisfying to them both. Indeed, Yaakov no longer carried stones for Lavan.
With regard to the American Thanksgiving holiday this week, Yaakov was grateful to God. He made pillars to God both before and after his life with Lavan. Lavan for his part, never really seemed grateful until Yaakov created the pact with him. Lavan’s outlook was changed, he acknowledged with gratitude Yaakov’s contributions and his own gains; he then blessed his grandchildren, Yaakov’s clan.
Truly, when we act as a link between Heaven and Earth, we may fulfill our Destiny; to bring gratitude, acceptance, and holiness into the lives of others as well as to ourselves.
©Susan J Katz 11/2017