Sunday, August 28, 2005

157. Ego

The summer is almost over, which means only one more week of a single Friday night service. (There will be two after Labor Day, one at the synagogue and another, starting a little later, at the church.) The format was different these past months; instead of two leaders up front at the bima, everyone--rabbis and instrumentalists--sat in the center, surrounded by all of us. Friday night was a full house, with the cantor at the keyboard accompanied by a guitarist, cellist, upright bass player, oud player, percussionist, and--making me wish cameras were allowed on Shabbat--three rabbis on drums. Their joy at being with each other again, after weeks of overlapping vacations, was contagious. They stood only as the ritual required; you couldn't see them at all if you were sitting beyond the first few rows, which I think was the point. We all became equal parts of this music, clapping, dancing and singing as it got louder and carried us somewhere above the dark blue and gold that stretches beyond the top of the Ark. Unlike the kind of slow, strong, woven energy I wrote about on Friday, this was combustion, the fabric set on fire.

I walked out feeling like I had been injected with Shabbat. I took the long way home and wondered if they would go back to the usual, non-traditional, participatory "old" format, with leaders standing up front. On the one hand, these past eight Fridays were not nearly enough; I craved more. On the other--on the ego-driven, selfish other hand--this would mean I'd have many fewer opportunities, if any, to help lead.

In writing about the past year, especially now that I've finally reached the part about leading during the High Holidays, I need to acknowledge the elephant in the living room. It's not just about me having an amazing spiritual experience at the bima. I also like being up front, even though it makes my knees shake, and I enjoy the satisfaction of doing well and having others tell me so. I know this is OK, and normal. Judaism isn't an ascetic religion; we encourage, in sensible amounts, pleasure, pride, and related forms of happiness, while also asking in our prayers each day: "Let me be humble before all." We read, this Shabbat in Parashat Ekev, that "man does not live on bread alone," meaning that we need need food for the soul and senses, as well. But in context this line also suggests that we can live on less than bread (manna, subsistence unadorned). Whatever God provides is good. I've been given an incredible year of learning, growth, and opportunity, and have no right to expect more. I need to say "dayenu"--sufficient!--to anything else that happens. And afterwards, in another lesson learned from this parasha, I need to give thanks for the abundance I've enjoyed.

The rabbis and cantor at my synagogue, brilliant people who choose to keep a low profile, are excellent models of how to balance ego and humility. All their innovations in ritual are geared towards making the experience more participatory--what first drew me to this congregation, and back to Judaism--and less about the person standing up front. I still don't know how much, or where or when, I'll be leading for the High Holidays. I'm assuming it will be less than last year, when I did a lot because other leaders needed help or dropped out. Whatever it will be, it's not about me--and it will be very, very good.

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