Exactly ten years ago, I wrote a musing for parashat Beshalakh/Shabbat Shirah entitled "Mi Khamonu?" I started out this way:
Who is like you, Ad"nai, among the gods? Who is like you, awesome in splendor, working wonders?
For a brief moment, I considered making that my entire musing for today. After all, it sums up for me, quite distinctly, what I think about G-d.
But, like Nachshon, I’ll plunge ahead into the waters anyway-even as unsure as I am of what lies ahead.
G"d is quite remarkable, of that there is no doubt. But G"d created a creature and endowed it with some truly remarkable features as well. And out of all the gifts G"d gave to this creature, known as humankind, one stands out as a unique way to thank and praise our creator. It may not be G"d’s greatest gift to us, but it sure ranks up there. (We are the recipient of so many gifts from G"d I would be hard pressed to prioritize them: Shabbat, Torah, freedom from slavery, love, senses, etc. If I were to hazard a guess, I might place Shabbat above all-for it came before Torah. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
The gift I am speaking of is the gift of music and song. And what a glorious and remarkable gift it is. Those of you who know me well know that music is at the very core of my Judaism. That’s why this Shabbat, Shabbat Shirah is always one of my favorite Shabbats.And since the gift of music is such a special one, what better way to thank and praise G-d but through music. With music we praise, thank, glorify, remember, teach, share, love.
I’m revisiting those thoughts this year, in some ways with a very different set of present circumstances, and in some ways, very similar. Ten years ago, I was still (one of the few) Jewish students in the Master’s program at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I was also working at three (+) synagogues in the Nashville area. One conservative, two Reform, with occasional involvement with a Chabad congregation as well. Today, in 5769, I am not a college student, though I am living in a college town (Amherst, MA and the five-college area.) I am again working for three different synagogues-this time one Conservative, One Reconstructionist, and one Reform.
The three synagogues in Nashville were, to no surprise given their locale, very musical, with lots of singing. One Reform congregation had a wonderful cantor, and he could do a wonderful classic reform service. However, he was always open to innovation and new music, and there was always quite a bit of lay participation. I didn’t do music there myself, but it was a place I could happily enjoy and participate in worship. At the other Reform synagogue, music was my primary role, working along with a number of truly fine cantorial soloists, some of whom have gone on to great success in the Jewish music scene. They also had a fabulous lay choir. It was a particularly participatory congregation, and one where my concept of my playing of the piano as my personal t’filot really worked. I’ve often told others that playing my keyboard or piano as part of a worship service is a very spiritual experience for me, and often I feel I am just channeling something greater than me. The conservative shul was also quite musical. They had a respected, venerable Hazzan, of long experience. However, he, too, was open to new music, new ideas. They also had a thriving lay choir. Hearing them during the High Holy Days gave me great respect for what is possible musically even in a place where tradition precludes the use of instruments on Shabbat or khag.
I’ve been fortunate that, in the years before an after my short few years in Nashville, I’ve been able to work with congregations where my musical passions could also be part of my passion for Judaism. Even at the large Conservative shul which was one of my workplaces while in the Northern VA/DC/Maryland area, musical fulfillment and integration w was possible. I got to work with some truly great cantors and hazzanim. I had some wonderful partners in fulfilling my passion for Judaism and music, too. I was able to work with a really fabulous group of teens in a choir who did both a cappella and choral music (even participating in the HaZamir Jewish teen Choir festival several times, a truly amazing experience.) Best of all, I was able to serve a congregation where my musical gifts were well utilized in integrated into all I did, even as their Director of Education.
Ten years ago, I wrote:
In "Sparks Beneath the Surface" Larry Kushner and Kerry Olitzsky relate a teaching of Rabbi A. Chein. The Rabbi teaches that the reason we remember the miracle of what happened at the Reed Sea is because of the song they sung (Shirat Hayam.) Yet we do not recall Joshua leading Israel across the Jordan near Jericho – another miracle of waters split asunder and crossing on dry land.[Joshua 3:16-17] for it lacks the musical attestation.
What a beautiful teaching, that eloquently demonstrates the power of song and music. Much of what I first learned of the history of the Jewish people was through song and poetry, and I daresay this is true for many of us.
Music is one of the most powerful forms of prayer. Every Shabbat I know it carries me to new heights of understanding, and brings me closer to G"d. Whether it’s accompanying at services, or just singing Shabbat z’mirot, the feeling is there. I know I’ve told many of you before that what comes out of my hands when I play the piano is t’fillah. (One thing I have discovered as a Jewish student at an essentially Xtian Divinity School is that most Xtians I talk to simply cannot conceive of what I mean what I say that. I haven’t quite figured out why this is such an alien concept to them.)
But this magic need not be the special province of Shabbat only. Simply by bringing our music with us into the rest of the week, we can keep a little bit of Shabbat with us. It works for me. Driving in the car, in my office, when I go walking…listening to my favorite Jewish music selections helps keep me in that Shabbat mood.
Music can get through to everyone. It touches something inside our souls. This point was brought home for me eloquently this morning when, at the last minute, I substituted as songleader at a weekly playschool service at a Nashville congregation. It was such a joy to see all those smiling young faces, and to share with them my joy of Judaism and Shabbat in music and song. It was a revitalizing experience, and something I hadn’t done for a while. (As a side note, it’s truly amazing how G"d finds ways to fill our needs. I wasn’t supposed to songlead for this service-my wife, the singer/songleader extraordinaire, was. Sadly, it was her misfortune to be sick this morning, and while I feel bad about that, I was able to be useful and fulfill a personal need as well. G"d does indeed work in strange ways.)
Maybe I’ve grown impatient as I age, but, at least for the moment, I feel as if my need for musical passion in my Judaism isn’t being filled as it used to be. I can’t really fault G"d for that, yet I can’t be quite as certain as I was that "it’s truly amazing how G"d finds ways to fill our needs." I’m working for three wonderful congregations. It’s not that they are unmusical-there’s lots of music and people who love to sing. The rabbonim and staff love music as well. (There are no cantors in the area, however.) It’s just that, so far, I haven’t found a way to interweave my passion for music, which comes through the playing of piano or keyboard with worship. Some of that is simply minhag and how different congregations weave their way around the halakha regarding Shabbat and Khagim. Another part of it is that the contemporary folk/pop/rock/spiritual Jewish music revolution, which is where I feel most comfortable, somehow seems to have bypassed this area. Oh, there is passing recognition for a few songs by Friedman, Klepper, an ocassional Taubman, et al but not much more. Even songs that I know have become popular not just at the URJ camps, but at the Ramah camps as well, don’t seem to made their way into common usage here. I’m working, of course, to change that, and it being Shabbat Shirah I can recharge myself for that mission. I’m actually going to get an opportunity tonight to do a service where I can use my piano. So maybe G"d is at least trying to help. Music can do so much to make the worship experience even better. I pray I be given the chance to illustrate just how that can be, for as many people as I can, as often as I can. For now, I’ll have to be content to appreciate the opportunities I get, and steel myself for the efforts ahead.
Ten years ago I wrote:
Mi chamocha, baelim Ad-nai? Mi kamocha, nedar bakodesh Nora t’hilot, oseh feleh.
Sometimes it’s the words that are important to me, at other times, it’s the music. Both can be equally powerful. Try it yourself. Hum a tune you know for "Mi Khamocha" and see if it doesn’t remind you of what happened at the Reed Sea, even without the words.
Mi Khamonu? Who is like us? We are the lucky ones. To have such gifts. And such gifts are to be shared.
I suppose this musing is a bit of catharsis for me, and I thank you, dear reader, for indulging me.
May your Shabbat and all your days be filled with the beauty of Shirim.
Ad"nai yimlokh l’olam va-ed.
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester