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
A few days ago I set out in my car on a road trip. I had my iPod set on shuffle. As I left the border crossing behind and hit the open highway, The Mighty Clouds of Joy came on, singing ‘He’s My Saviour in the Storm’: and from the bottom right of my view, the most remarkable rainbow arced fully over the highway; it remained in my forward view for a full hour and a half, until the sun set.
How so the passage of time keeps us treading in the same spot while simultaneously providing new frames of reference. In particular, I recall those decades of fantabulous mind-bending alternative reality discoveries most of us we Boomers survived, during the ‘1960’s-’80’s.
Those fantasmagoric new realities included the reflective internal arts of the Far East: meditation, Buddhism, the martial arts, and Taoism.
What I am discovering is that although they are sound and powerful tools to self-knowledge, their applications back in those turbulent days of change in North America were less so. In fact, the fashionable gravitation towards anything novel and unlike what our parents did ultimately led to accepting ersatz versions of the original practices. Despite this we still ingested digested and distilled versions of practices which by their very nature required patient, slow, disciplined commitment and engagement. In other words, we were engaging with these foreign practices and yet remaining just as we were; always looking for a quick fix for ourselves.
The disillusionment is palpable for most Boomers I meet with. We live in a new era of people long disenfranchised from organized religions and faith practices; and worse, have witnessed the unveiled, mundane wizards behind the curtains who manipulated the counterculture’s ‘sacred practices’ for their own commercialized success. Examples include the proliferation of entrepreneurism in yoga wear, their requisite slogans to encourage you to go to class (and look good at the same time), or the exposure of the empty teachings of Transcendental Meditation, and the leadership of the Bikram yoga franchise. The irony of this is our ongoing belief in instant fixes through these practices. Now, every mainstream medical and healthcare clinician is prescribing meditation, yoga, and tai chi as exercises for body and mind, fuelling an open and unregulated market of teachers and gurus.
In each of these settings, nothing new is being gained. The value of these ancient Eastern arts is that they are arts. They are not the equivalent of circuit training, riding an exercise bike, or doing a set of calisthenics with a qualified trainer. The oriental arts are not primarily meant to develop the body; they are meant to develop the mind through engagement with the body. This takes more than a prescription for lessons and not only repeating physical movements, but also understanding them.
Why would a Jewish Chaplain be writing about this? And why now?
I am noticing a trend in both the public media and in my practice that people are really stressed in general, which is nothing new. What is new is that we have lost our way as a society; we have lost or eschewed a reliable source to turn to when the going goes from everyday stressful into crisis.
How does it look when you are navigating a full time salaried day job or being a full time homemaker with all the work and busy-ness these require, and now you have a cancer diagnosis? Or your beloved father dies unexpectedly, or your child. Or your spouse tells you over dinner they are leaving and want a divorce. Now what?
People in general do not live in standby mode, ready and prepared for these things, unless they have some fear-based drives to live that way. In times of trust in faith, we grew up knowing, because everyone believed it so, that going to church or temple would provide a framework for navigating these rough times. Unfortunately, even these places succumbed to the lightness of empty experience. Boomers have created alternative rituals in yoga studios, the gym to be buff, to karate to earn a black belt, or doing drugs with friends and we got lost in Transcendental Meditation. These activities certainly have their value, but will they provide a source to turn to when the ordinary becomes unbearable?
I recall sitting with a friend many years ago. I was always impressed at how she had the wherewithal to be self-sustaining in her own private healthcare clinical practice. Yet, as we talked, she told me about her husband’s long history of drinking and how she no longer came home to find him adorably rummy; he was now impossible to be around. She and her adult children were in a crisis: there was no where to go for answers, for comfort, for directions out of this mess. She thought about closing her practice and just leaving the country altogether on her own. But what she really wanted to tell me was how much she regretted not having been part of a religion and having instead brought up her children without any sort of religious practice; no Sunday school, no weekly worship, no way of sorting out the deep questions and suffering they were all going through. She wanted to talk to me because my family did do those things and had built a spiritual foundation to turn to should we need it. For her and her family, it was a long road to embark upon on top of trying to cope on a daily basis. I encouraged her to invest herself and take the first steps anyway, acknowledging that it was certainly simpler to just escape.
Other manifestations of the ’60-’80’s indulgences of the Boomers include the continued belief that change can be instantaneous. We still want instant nirvana or enlightenment. And, being proud North Americans, someone will assure us that if we desire it, we can create it. We have moved somewhat beyond Timothy Leary and the promise of instant knowledge of the universe in a single tab of LSD; we now know that won’t happen. In fact what we have gained from that belief is a serious national problem with intravenous drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.
Back to that sunset with rainbow and gospel song. Not to parallel my new-found rainbow in the sky with the strawberry-fields-forever of the rock ‘n’ roll era, but to say that there are important and life-altering convergences that go on in our lives all the time.
We are too busy looking for a quick fix to see them. Even the experiencing of these ephemeral convergences has been co-opted. Synchronicities, the unbidden and mundane convergences that are life altering moments, ironically have lost their effect toward change by becoming something we actively seek. What the Eastern arts were originally designed for was to train ourselves through various practices to be able to notice those convergences. These moments of grace are natural occurrences that we observe only in the subtlety of quiet availability, developed over time, the same way that learning to play a piano gracefully and with satisfaction takes time and engagement.
Or in navigating the features of a computer, or learning to speak as an infant, or learning a new language. Do you remember your first steps as an infant? Probably not, but you have likely watched a baby taking first steps, and then the months and years to learn coordination and mastery of physical movements.
It is the same with our spiritual growth. There is no quick fix or quick lesson for that. If anyone tries to sell you that, fire them. And certainly don’t seek it, or you will find yourself with that familiar pastey taste in your mouth, disillusioned and empty after investing in a shortcut lesson in enlightenment.
I once took a meditation class at my local community centre. The instructor talked constantly for over an hour, and even after we finally got 10 minutes to sit quietly to try meditation, she gabbed at us about how marvellous serenity was. Instead of relaxing, all I wanted to do was shout at her, “You need to take a meditation class to learn to be quiet!”
These arts require knowledge as well as practice. On the outside we may look right with the right clothes, cushions, prayer books and garb, gee and slippers, but the deepening of the art comes from understanding what the path or process is and matching that information with how you do it. For example, tai chi is actually tai chi ch’uan, a martial art, and as such is meant as a means of cultivating focus for your inner strength. It may appear to be a lovely free flowing improvisational dance because of the gracefulness of one who is fully engaged in the movements, but each movement is actually the review of a lesson in focusing a neutralizing or deadly defensive move against an attacker.
When you have found your practice, whether it is prayer at a conventional religious community, meditation, martial art, creating music or a garden, you will have developed a sensitivity that invites meaningful moments that seem like nirvana. The moment I heard the gospel song and saw the rainbow appear as I sped onto the highway of a new country, the world shifted. I no longer worried about anything; I let go of everything because suddenly everything made sense. I felt a rush of gratitude for this unbidden moment of grace or deliverance at just the moment the song beckoned the listener to thank God. I was grateful that I had allowed myself the faculties to sensitivity to recognize the moment. I thought of the Beatles’ song, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, and felt how glad I was to have been that fool, regularly setting foot in my spiritual practices and studies knowing there is no instant fix.
Today is the winding down after a two-week shift as the On Call Chaplain for the local hospital. It has been an unusually full two weeks. Yesterday I spent the whole day, from 9am to about 5pm with family members on the phone and then at the hospital. It was the third call in for a person who was now a patient on life-support in the ICU. In all three calls, the family was wanting spiritual support to help them transition into the decision to remove their loved one from life support. Their request was for a means of navigating the imminent transition of a known life and spirit, knowing that soon that loved one would be dying.
I know these are medical situations of the most serious kind, and that the Social Worker is specially trained to help with practical decisions for arrangements to transport the loved one’s remains. Somewhere in there is wedged the pathos and every day organic trauma that comes with the death of someone who has been part of our life. Someone we may have taken for granted just the day before, such as was the story of two of these situations. Then, unexplainably, a catastrophic physiological event happens. Our body, which we assume will take care of us, suddenly malfunctions: In some cases, decades earlier than we would have guessed.
I am always pleasantly surprised when people who may not have any ties to a formal faith, will ask for spiritual care to come. They usually ask the Nurse or Social Worker. They may not have a ritual in mind, but just know that this is a time for prayer to an Unexplainable Source, whose spacious living room they may have just fallen into.
We walk in the constructs of our daily lives, but when natural events suddenly trump our constructed ones, we end up in the liminal space between the two.
My training as a Chaplain is a mix of construct and natural instincts. I come to the work because it is my nature, for whatever reason, to dwell in the liminal spaces. Knowing this has drawn me forward into finding the constructs that will allow me to channel this way of being and knowing into a practice that others can draw upon.
Some of those constructs are taking almost 2,000 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, or experiential Chaplaincy training. With the guidance of Supervisors, I’ve learned how to navigate the narrow valley between the liminal spiritual places and the constructs of health care, family, and faith systems.
Although yesterday was formally my Sabbath (Shabbat), I spent it at the hospital working. The ethic is that taking care of a life comes before even the commandment to take a day of rest. Today was my day of rest and it has been good. The sun shone all day as a wonderful autumn treat. I had time to float out my nets and enjoy the evenness in the gentle swells between the liminal and construct states. Tomorrow will be another day.
Tonight I kindled the Chanukkah lights for the seventh night in a row.
At my hospital work, I had a full day of attending calls to visit patients and led a group in our hospital’s psychiatry department. I realized that now I’ve gone and done it; I am officially a ‘working stiff’, as my grandmother, who was the breadwinner in her household and marriage, used to call herself.
It’s been over 30 years since I last worked full time. Many of my friends are either beginning to retire from employment, counting the days, or have begun independent practices of whatever their working career was. Myself, I am just beginning to re-enter the work force while I complete my professional education.
Today was a day of real work. I recently finished my fourth and final unit as a student Clinical Pastoral Education, now ahead lie nine months of clinical residency; time to spend time integrating and serving in the work I have trained for, as a Spiritual Health Practitioner, sometimes called a Chaplain.
Tonight, the kindling of lights meant more to me than ever before. As a milestone of education has passed, I now see that more milestones lie ahead on the horizon. As I light the seven candles in my urban condo window, I remember the story of the people long ago who would not give up their identity and practices in order to fit in with their foreign overseers’ wishes. I remember what a miracle it was to persevere and succeed in regaining their prized spiritual tabernacle, and how the simplicity of the contents of a found cruse of oil could symbolically extend the light of success beyond the ordinariness of a single night.This has been and will continue to be an ever revealing and paradigm-challenging trajectory on a ship that pulls me along through space and time.
I chose to formalize as work what I do so well naturally: my former life of creative time and Jewish values and observance are now forever altered. I’ve stymied my preference to march to the drummer of my inner calling and outer cultural heritage in order to meet the scheduled production of easing spiritual distress and enhancing medical healing my work requires. Like the Maccabees, my inner life though, has started to rise up and challenge the administrator who dictated the need to repress creativity and subjugate it to writing reports and playing other peoples’ music.
I called a friend for comfort, and I’ll admit, a kick in the pants. He said, ‘play your oboe and write’. I’ve been getting these lectures for several weeks now from friends, both my outer world companions, and internal voices. It’s so easy to let it all go and slip into the frame of work, yet as an artistically gifted co-worker said to me, it becomes toxic if you stop creating and keep it all inside.
I’ve missed you all, my readers, my keyboard, my blog, and my oboe.
I had a dream that a famous Jewish musician came to play music with me. Here I am, back on board. All the orchestra Christmas music stayed in its folder this evening, and I played my circle of 5ths, embouchure and tone exercises, and gifted myself with release in my own bath of freigish veygeshryn’.
The work won’t go away, there will always be patients and seekers to visit, a ceremony to create, another memory to honour, a co-worker to support. That is my chosen work; I now see it is not a substitute for visiting myself; creating my own ceremonies and memories, and sharing love and mutual support with friends.
As I remember my promises to myself, my prayer is to not lose myself along the way ahead, and I thank God for this Chanukkah time of remembrance and rededication.