Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Songs of the Season - Bishivah Shel Ma'alah

OK - so now it is the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and frankly, pretty close to Yom Kippur).

Download Cantor David Berger - Bishivah Shel Ma'alah

I know that I'm still not ready. There just isn't time. I haven't asked for forgiveness from a number of people, and I haven't totally come clean with God. Some years you can walk into Yom Kippur feeling great about having really wiped your own slate clean - this year I'm praying that if I make a good effort, God will come and meet me half way.

I've been attracted to Isaiah 59 this week.
Here's how it starts:

1 No, Adonai's arm is not too short to save,
or God's ear too dull to hear.
2 But your iniquities have been a barrier
between your and your God,
your sins have hidden God's face from hearing you.
Isaiah is totally right - it can really feel like the things that I do wrong stand there in front of me. Just when I feel like I want to call on God's help to cleanse me, I face a barrier of my own issues. I get distracted, annoyed, unfocused and unproductive in my spirituality. Breaking through can be really difficult.

Which is why we need Yom Kippur to remind us that it is possible to regain access to God's face. We can, through the magic of this day, get past our blockages and make our prayers acceptable before God - we can be heard.

Our tradition knows that a lot of us aren't going to feel like we have earned the right to be forgiven by God when we stand and hear the Kol Nidre. Despite the 40 days of preparation (starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul), we still feel like sinners.

For that reason, as we "convene the court" on Kol Nidre - and prepare ourselves for the (very legalistic) release of vows we recite a sort of strange sentence three times.

Bishivah shel ma'alah
Uvishivah shel matah,
Al da'at hamakom
v'al da'at hakahal.
Anu matirin l'hitpaleil im ha'avaryanim.
By the authority of the heavenly court
And by the authority of the earthly court,
With the consent of the Omnipresent
And with the consent of this congregation,
We declare it permissible to pray with those who have sinned.
Download Cantor David Berger - Bishivah Shel Ma'alah

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (one of the most important figures in modern Orthodoxy) comments:
"The communal atonement effected by the very day of Yom Kippur is compromised if any members of the Jewish people are excluded. We therefore make this declaration, explicitly including among the congregation even those who have committed the most serious sins" (Boston Lecture, September 20th, 1969).

All of us have the right to be there - and all of us have the right for Yom Kippur to work its magic for us. The wall of sins that stand before us will fall, if we allow ourselves to look to the other side. Kol Nidre cannot be recited until we make it clear that no one can be excluded, and no one should exclude themselves.

Sometimes this vitally important line gets passed over - but I invite you to hear it calling to you this Friday night. Indeed, let's just extend this declaration for the entire year. Whoever we are, and whatever we have done or not done, we, together with God, declare that we can all pray together.

Back to Isaiah 59 for just a minute - after a long chapter of divine rebuke for all the bad things we've done comes one of my favorite passages - and it is too good not to share.

And this shall by My covenant with them, said Adonai:
My spirit, which is upon you,
and the words which I have placed in your mouth,
shall not be absent from your mouth,
nor from the mouth of your children,
nor from the mouth of your childrens' children -
Said Adonai -
from now on, for all time.
I pray that this year we all break through our walls and take our place in the community - that we bring ourselves to the hard task of T'shuvah with a new openness and strength. And I pray that, as Isaiah promises, our work will remind us of God's words which are with us upon our spirits and in our mouths - forever.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah - May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.
The Chazzan

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Songs of the Season - Achot K'tanah and Leshono Toyvo

29 Elul 5770
Today is the last day of 5770 - a big year for me and my family.
This year is filled with precious memories of friends, family, celebrations, commemorations - and a lot of time spent on the 405!

Mostly, when I think over this last year, I am filled with gratitude.

When I asked Reb Mimi Feigelson about her Elul preparation this year - she asked me "If someone told you that you were about to die - would you spend your time apologizing to people or would you spend it expressing thanks and gratitude?" It is a good question. When I remember this past year - I know that I have a lot of work to do in expressing gratitude to so many people who made 5770 special for me.

I also have some people from which I must ask forgiveness - and that, for me, will start on Sunday - after Rosh Hashanah has worked its magic on me.

For a lot of people, 5770 has been a very hard year. I struggle to come up with words to describe how Haitians or Pakistanis will remember this time. There have also been some difficulties for me this year - though nothing on that scale. Establishing myself in a new city (even a new time zone) has had its challenges - and I hope to leave a lot of that difficulty in 5770 as I step proudly into 5771.

Download Cantor David Berger - Achot K'tanah And Leshono Toyvo

Our tradition gives us two pieces that help to bring in the new year - and I've put them together here. One comes from the Sephardic world, and the other is from the secular Yiddish tradition.

The first piece, Achot K'tanah - is recited in Sephardic communities around the world just before the Rosh Hashanah Evening Service begins. The melody I recorded here comes from Morocco (Casablanca, specifically).

The full piyut (liturgical poem) has many verses - each of which ends "May the year and its curses end" until the last verse which switches moods and proclaims "May the new year and its blessings begin."

I believe that we carry blessings with us throughout our lives. Sometimes we just have to think of a blessing we remember from the past and almost immediately the warmth carried in that blessing spreads over us.

Curses - on the other hand - we carry with until we can put them down. There is a famous rabbinic image of a person holding a gross bug in his hands going to the mikveh. He dunks in the water, still holding the bug, and it surprised when he comes out still carrying the impurity of that bug. How often do we hold onto the defiling elements in our lives and souls while we go through the steps to clean ourselves? Pretty much all the time - that's my experience anyway.

So this poem - Achot K'tanah reminds us that we are supposed to let go of the curses and leave them in the past - and get ready for the fresh spring of blessings coming our way.

The second piece - called Leshono Toyvo - with words by Sh. Tzesler and music by Yiddish musicologist Chanah Mlotek - tells us how to say "Shanah Tovah" (Happy New Year). The Yiddish words say "Mir bagrisn hoykh un klor" - "We send greetings - loud and clear." The song is exuberant and the directions are simple - when you say "Shanah Tovah" be unambiguous in your joy.

Know that you are wishing them a year of blessing, health and goodness - and that you have the power within you to bless. Each of has that power - to offer blessings to the people we love, loud and clear.

So tonight, at Rosh Hashanah services, we will sing both of these melodies together. We'll cast away the curses of the past year and prepare ourselves to receive the blessings coming towards us and then we'll open our voices, loud and clear, and wish everyone a "Shonoh Toyvo!"

Download Cantor David Berger - Achot K'tanah And Leshono Toyvo

Achot k’tanah t’filoteha
Orcha v’onah t’hiloteha
Eil na r’fa na l’machaloteha
Tichleh Shanah v’kil’loteha

Chizku v’gilu ki shod gamar
L’tzur hochilu b’rito shamar
Lachem v’ta’alu l’tziyon v’amar
Tacheil shanah uvirchoteha

Little sister [Israel] prepares her prayers and proclaims her praises.
Oh, God, please heal her ailments. Let the year and its curses be over.
Be strong and rejoice, for the plunder is ended.
Hope in the Rock and keep the covenant. You will ascend to Zion and God will say,
“Let the year and all its blessings begin!”

Mir bagrisn hoykh un klor
“L’shono Toyvo, a gut yor!”

Mir bagrisn un mir vinshn
Alle menshn hoykh un klor
L’shono Toyvo tikoseyvu!
A gut yor, a gut yor! (2x)

We send greetings, loud and clear “Happy New Year!”
We send greetings and wishes, loud and clear, to all people – “Happy New Year!”

L'shanah Tovah Tikateivu V'teichateimu.
May you be written and sealed for a sweet and wonderful New Year.
The Hazzan

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Songs of the Season - Adam Y'sodo Mei'afar

Today is the 22nd of Elul - Rosh Hashanah Eve is exactly one week away.
This coming Saturday we will join together for Selichot, the special petitionary prayers that help prepare our souls for the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, which are rapidly approaching.

Download Cantor David Berger - Adam Y'sodo Mei'afar

This week I had the intense pleasure of meeting a brand new baby. Some of my best friends in the world are now proud parents, and this amazingly beautiful baby begins a life that I pray is filled with health, joy, love and success.

Babies bring a special kind of joy to everyone who sees them. We are evolutionarily programmed to love them and to want to provide for them. Put me anywhere near a baby and out come the funny faces, crazy sounds and an un-erasable smile.

Babies also remind us of the very nature of life. We see this tiny creature that is totally dependent on support from people and we are sometimes reminded of all the support upon which we depend. Though we grow older and develop many different kinds of independence, ultimately our very lives demand the help and support of others, and in this modern society our lifestyles require the labors of workers all over the globe.

It is all quite fragile - we are all quite fragile. It is stunning to imagine what would happen were some of these interconnections and dependencies disrupted.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we recite the great "Un'taneh Tokef." Most famous for the "who shall live and who shall die" section, this piyut (liturgical poem) is filled with incite on the fragility of our lives and on the nature of humanity.

Not far after the whole "who by fire and who by water" section comes a short reflection on the transience of our lives - essentially, on our own mortality.

All of humanity is founded on dust -
of dust they are made, and to dust they return;
as long as they live, they strive for their bread.
Like vessels of clay, they can break.
Like grass they can wither, like flowers they fade,
like shadows they pass, like clouds they are emptied,
like wind their strength is exhausted,
like dust they are scattered about,
like a dream they shall vanish from sight.
Why are we dwelling on this at this moment? Why do we have to be thinking about our own mortality - isn't it more fun to think about babies and puppies?

Here's one answer from Catholic theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996). This comes from the introduction to his short *and amazing* book called "Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life" (on page 18)

During our life we become more aware not only of our crying loneliness but also of our real desire for a solitude of the heart; we come to the painful realization not only of our cruel hostilities but also of our hope to receive our fellow humans with unconditional hospitality; and underneath all of this we discover not only the endless illusions which make us act as if we are masters of our fate but also the precarious gift of prayer hidden in the depth of our innermost self.
What illusion is he talking about? Primarily the illusion that we are immortal - that we ourselves need not face death. It is only by overcoming that illusion that we can reach the deepest and most authentic voice of prayer that resides within us.

Un'taneh Tokef is quite harsh and tries to drum into us the basic fact that our lives are not in our own hands. The control that we think we have over the world is one of the illusions we must come to terms with. Each of us is able to do great works, to achieve amazing accomplishments and move the world forward - but none of us is in control.

Download Cantor David Berger - Adam Y'sodo Mei'afar

So we come to this haunting melody for this small section of Un'taneh Tokef. Originally composed by Cantor Abram Brodach who lived and worked mostly in New Haven - this melody has been altered slightly by Joyce Rosenzweig, and then re-arranged a little bit by myself.

Adam y'sodo mei'afar
V'sofo lei'afar
B'nafsho yavi lachmo
Yavi lachmo.

It is possible to become a bit morbid in our contemplation of mortality - however - immediately following this text, Un'taneh Tokef reminds us that though we are transient - God is Eternal. "But You are the Sovereign! The God who lives and endures."

Yes - we fade away and our lives are by definition finite - but our lives are ever enriched by God who is eternal. We are never forgotten and the part of ourselves that is reflected in God's own image remains a part of the universe.

I'm in the middle of knitting a baby blanket for this wonderful, beautiful new soul that I just met this week. Though I cannot control the world, and cannot even know for sure if I can control my own schedule in this coming week - I can provide some warmth and joy to a new baby and her parents. Who needs eternity when I have that?

Hope this weekend's Selichot services bring you one step (or maybe more than one) closer to being ready for the Days of Awe.