(Interrupting the story.)
"What goes on in the heart is reflected in one's face. It is embarrassing to be exposed to the sight of the congregation in moments when one wishes to be alone with his God.
"A cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn to realize that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation and be overcome by the awareness of Him in whose presence he stands. The congregation will then hear and sense that the cantor is not giving a recital but worshipping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Man's Quest for God," p.86 ([sic] all the "he and "His"; this was written in 1954)
After many days of confusion about how uneasy I felt when leading services last week, I screwed up my courage and emailed the rabbi. I apologized for losing my bearings. I immediately regretted hitting "send"; was I overreacting? Would this make him think I didn't know what I was doing?
He did not. He referred me to the above passage. I ran out and bought the book, and almost lost my breath as I read p.86 while waiting for the subway. Is this what I experienced when I stood with my back to the congregation? Was the problem not that I was so far from everyone, but rather that I was suddenly too close to God, and unprepared for the intimacy? And if so--was it right to have this experience when I was supposed to be speaking for the community? It seems selfish. I don't understand how losing my connection with the people I represent becomes a good model of prayer.
The rabbi generously offered to discuss this with me the next time we lead services together. Until then, I'll look for more answers from Heschel.