Monday, August 30, 2010

Power of Nusach

Music has the unique ability to establish or alter the mood of the listener. The music of Jewish prayer is no different in that respect. Weekday services have their own mode and style, ranging all the way to the once-yearly nusach (musical arrangement) for Ne'ilat Sha'arim (Closing of the Gates) at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What does this have to do with the season of t'shuvah specifically?

The music of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays, Days of Awe, or Ten Days of Repentance) is obviously unique to those days as well as extraordinarily beautiful. From the opening notes on Rosh Hashana eve, continuing through the previously mentioned ne'ilah, the drama and gravity of the days are established. Among others, at this time of year I find myself humming the familiar melody of the chatzi kaddish that marks the entrance to the hallowed hours of the mussaf (additional) services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, among other melodies. Allowing those sometimes chilling notes to escape my lips moves me into a mindset where I am instantaneously closer to God, a central feature of the t'shuva season.

To understand the power of the nusach, and the place it has in prayer makes us better daveners. On the side bar, I have listed a website entitled Virtual Cantor. If you have a moment, locate the recordings for the High Holidays, you will likely find familiar sounds. Allow yourself to be consumed by the power of nusach

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sacred Space(s), Part II

I have been doing a lot of thinking since my post on Monday about what it means to make a sacred space. Yesterday morning, I again went to the Kotel (Western Wall) for shacharit (morning prayers) as well as to try and gain a deeper understanding of the sacred spaces question. I came away with two models of sacred space.

Model 1: Inside-out

The Inside-out model is essentially the Ohel Mo-ed (Tent of Meeting) or Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) methodology. In this model the holiest area can be found at the center, and then the kedusha gradually decreases as one moves from the center. The holiest location was off limits to even the High Priest, save for one day a year, Yom Kippur. Moving away from that critical center, the holiness decreases, although never entirely dissipates. I would recommend finding a good diagram of either the Ohel Mo-ed or the Beit Hamikdash for better visualization. Some chumashim have them in the reference section. To review, a place is anointed as holy, and then the sacredness flows from that area.

Model 2: Outside-in

Exactly the opposite of Inside-out, and the model with which I believe is most relevant today. This is the model of the independent minyan, sometimes the synagogue, and perhaps even a beit midrash (house of study). Here, the people bring the holiness into a space, and ascribe the holiness to the location. For example, Kehillat Hadar which meets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, uses the basement of a local church to hold their Shabbat morning activities. Chairs are set, an aron kodesh (holy closet) is stationed and eventually equipped with a Torah. The participants arrive, engage in davening with great fervor, and read from the Torah. However, once the davening has concluded, the space is transformed back into the basement of a generous church. The behavior, set-up, mindset, and intention of the kahal (community) brings the kedusha. Thus, we bring holiness to a place by behaving appropriately, dressing appropriately, having a focused intent, and gathering the dispersed holiness into a critical mass.

Please be advised: these are not criticisms of Kehillat Hadar, nor are they a knock on the holiness of the church as a whole.

I wish you luck on transforming your spaces, Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sacred Space(s)

So far, I have touched on a couple of elements that I feel are critical in experiencing meaningful prayer. One such element was that of space. And while I'm still working on a rubric, I want to discuss one space specifically, the one featured in the photograph above, the kotel hama'aravi (Western Wall).

Thursday morning I walked to the kotel for the first time since arriving in Israel. I had never been particularly moved before, but I had enjoyed the davening nonetheless. On Thursday I was brought to tears. I said Shma, one hand over my eyes, the other touching the cool smooth stones, not yet warmed by the sun. Friday night I participated in Kabbalat Shabbat at the kotel. I joined a group of soldiers, hareidim, tourists, and American students in song and dance. I knew none of these people, their names, or their histories, but we were united as our melodies mingled with others' and floated heavenward. No tears this time, but a spiritual connection all the same.

What is it about that space? On the one hand, its an open air synagogue with poor acoustics, a flaw which I think detracts from the enjoyment of davening. On the other hand, it's currently the closest you can come to the Holy of Holies, except for maybe a spot in the Kotel tunnels, and open your lips in prayer. Maybe I've answered my own question, but how do we carry this kedusha (holiness)into the world such that we might sanctify other spaces as well?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Psalm 27: A Personal Reflection

Having now completed one week of daily recitations of Psalm 27, I feel that it is now appropriate to offer some of my thoughts about the Psalm we will continue saying through the conclusion of Shemini Atzeret. The text with translation can be found here at Mechon Mamre. By the way, Mechon Mamre is a fabulous resource for your own learning.

The psalm seems to be divided into three sections. The first, verses one through three, the second verses four through six, and the third verses seven through thirteen. Perhaps not coincidentally JPS makes the same demarcations.

I read the first section as an affirmation of faith. It strikes me as similar to the opening bracha of the amidah where we invoke the names of our ancestors. Almost as if to say, no matter what happens we still have a connection to those people, and I, regardless of circumstance will maintain a connection to God. If you'd prefer a slightly more flippant take, the author is "buttering-up" God. Faith is being affirmed even at a time when individuals could have drifted from God's presence and faith is being recalled at a time when actions might not dictate recognition of God's existence. The reaffirmation serves as the first step to re-enter the abode of God.

Section two switches to a mode of petition and modesty. Our needs our constantly changing and we could request anything, but as the psalm says, "One thing I ask of the Lord..." shelter and protection. Even though I may have been wayward toward You or towards others, I seek Your shelter. Perhaps here we see a connection to Sukkot, which also explains why the Psalm is no longer said once we have completed our week in the sukkah. One final observation on this section: the root S'T'R appears twice. We are asking to be hidden and protected. Interestingly enough, the fifth sin found in the long vidui (confession) of Yom Kippur asks for forgiveness for sins committed in public or in sater (private), the same S'T'R root from our psalm. God knows the hidden sins along with the public ones, allows us to return after transgression, and provides protection. That's t'shuva.

If you believe as I do, that sin leads to sin, which eventually distances an individual from God and Godliness, then the third section flows with tremendous power. During the time of self-evaluation, while looking to grow in our relationships with each other and God we cannot help but ask to be heard and accepted by God. When I recite the text, my thoughts are usually directed to the idea that I do not deserve yet another chance. I am deliberately avoiding the temptation to over-dramatize, but the dramatic feelings do indeed percolate whilst reciting this third section. Yom Kippur's shma koleinu (hear our voice), which bears some similarities to the psalm, continues to be very personally moving, and in fact it is this third section, in conjunction with shma koleinu, that spurs me to continue delving deeper into myself.

I have put quite a bit out there today, but please feel free to comment and offer your own take.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Liturgical and Spiritual Shift

The calendar has turned from the month of Av to the month of Elul. For the past several weeks, the haftara (weekly prophetic reading) has been related to the calendar instead of thematically tied to the parasha (weekly Torah reading). This is a ten week cycle, that this year began on July 3rd.

The first three haftarot of admonition conclude on the Shabbat that precedes the tragic day of Tisha b'Av (9th of Av). We are foretold about the coming destruction of the Temple. True to prophesy, the Temple is destroyed and all of its holy vessels are hauled off to Babylonia. Later, this also becomes a foretelling of the second destruction. The seven haftarot that follow Tisha b'Av, those of consolation, are elevating in nature. They encourage return and repentance. In other words, from the depths of destruction, to the heights of redemption. Similarly, at the end of the seven weeks of consolation, and the ten week cycle overall, lies the day of judgment, Rosh Hashana.

During the reading of the seven haftarot of consolation, comes the new month of Elul. Two new elements are added to daily prayers. In the morning(except on Shabbat) the shofar (ram's horn) is sounded at the conclusion of davening, arousing souls to ascend to the heights, and out of the depths from which they come. Preceding the shofar sounding is the recitation of Psalm 27. You can find the text and translation here. I will save my thoughts on the psalm until later in the month.

Just as the haftarot have shifted and the liturgy itself begins to change, I would encourage you to begin your personal introspection, culminating in spiritual elevation. I believe that when used appropriately, the month preceding the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can elevate the t'fillot and the experience of standing before the aron kodesh (holy ark) on those days.

The blog will also be undergoing a bit of a transformation. I hope to take advantage of the gold mine of liturgical material available, touch on some of the themes of the High Holiday liturgy, as well as discuss difficult or challenging sections. Let the tussling happen here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Movement in Prayer

In response to Paige's comment(which you can see below), I gave more thought to the concept of including significant movement during prayer. As luck would have it, following my post last Friday, I attended kabbalat Shabbat (Lit: Receiving the Sabbath) and there was significant dancing by both men and women.

It felt almost as if putting down our siddurim and joining in a lumpy, rhythmically challenged circle released some sort of euphoric energy that permeated the prayer space for the remainder of the evening. I can only explain it by saying that the siddur banging, and shuckeling (swaying) that was occurring before the dancing was similar to building up the pressure in a carbonated beverage. Obviously, when this bottle was opened we weren't all spritzed, but that's not the point.

So, I'm not sure exactly where to go with this from here, except to point out that in the case of last Friday, movement lifted the spiritual, physical, and emotional levels of the evening. I'm equally unsure of how appropriate it would be in all contexts, and what a "dancing/movement model" would look like while still retaining respect and reverence for prayer and the prayer space.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Hearing the Prayers of Others

As in communities all over the world where there exist a significant Muslim population, in Jerusalem one can usually hear the call to prayer at some point during the day. Since arriving in Jerusalem on Monday, I have been able to hear the last of the five daily calls to prayer. Usually the sound is sort of captured on the wind and depending on the direction, the volume varies.

I have no understanding of Arabic, and frankly attempting to learn and understand Hebrew is time consuming enough. However, what I can understand is the passion that is behind the melodious voice.

Whilst listening to the prayers of others whose words I do not understand, I began to wonder how would our t'fillot sound to an outsider. Would they be filled with passion like the voice I hear every night, or would they be weighed down, carrying a sense of burden. The obvious answer is that it depends on the circumstances, and the group who can be heard. Some probably sound like a burden, and others probably sound like they are overflowing with joy to be standing in prayer.

I am not suggesting that davening communities put on a show in the event that they are being witnessed or overheard. What I am suggesting is that each participant with maximum effort by being truly present. Leaving the shaliach tzibbur (public messenger) out to dry takes away from the atmosphere. Similarly, overtaking the shaliach tzibbur creates a feeling of confusion. Having been in both situations, I can tell you that neither is particularly pleasant.

So how do we apply the passion of the Islamic prayer leader? I propose studying the dynamics of each prayer space and evaluating the intention and commitment that you as an individual are bringing. If this means taking a few moments before prayer to collect your thoughts, if it means stretching, meditation, please do it. I must qualify by saying that not every entrance into a prayer space is consumed with overwhelming meaning, but that by putting the most into it, we stand to get the most out of it. Perhaps by using some innovative methods, we can be sure that our passion in prayer mirrors that which I hear on a nightly basis.

As always I welcome your suggestions and comments.

Note: If you would like to post, please let me know, as this is a communal effort, and I want this blog to continue to grow.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bestowing a Blessing

Anybody who has been to Israel or who lives there knows that crossing paths with soldiers is a very common experience. Similarly, anybody who has been to Israel or who lives there knows that witnessing the making of brakhot(blessings) is also a common sight.

However, in light of my recent post about the siddur, I took special note of the following scene:

On Thursday in the town of Zichron Yaakov, a number of soldiers were visiting the First Alyiah Museum, and the other sites of Zichron. During lunch, the soldiers fanned out to make their selections from the shops and cafes that Zichron offers. A small group of male soldiers were flagged down by an older man whilst enjoying his lunch. Beckoning the green-clad soldiers to his table, the man pulled out his siddur. He began leafing through it, as if he was looking for just the right words. The older man bestowed a blessing upon the young men, they exchanged handshakes, hugs, and parted.

As I watched from the distance I could help but think about what I was witnessing. And while we're not talking about t'fillot in the sense of davening, observing the rapid turning of pages and the grateful faces, made me appreciate on a physical level the potential of prayer. I touched on this a bit in an earlier post about the health benefits of regular prayer. However, this is about the giving and receiving of blessings, and not specifically the medicinal benefits.

As such, and perhaps as you might have expected, my blessing to you is that my story here will allow for you to have greater physical appreciation for the words that are printed, or the ones that flow unscripted from our lips.