(Before I continue and, eventually, conclude the story of last year, I must apologize to... myself. [And to my ten or so loyal readers.] I had hoped to write a lot more this past week before the next installment begins, but ended up working 18 hours a day. This is not an ideal way to live, oy, and I'm trying to figure out a solution.)
I don't remember very much, a year later, about what it felt like to lead services on the first day of Rosh Hashonah. I think I was so intent upon using every possible store of my of brains and breath, so aware that I was enacting, for real, the adage "from your mouth to God's ears," that I had no capacity left to acquire memory. I felt responsible to a thousand people and tried as hard as humanly possible to pray on their behalf. It took an awful lot of energy.
I was grateful for the intensity of the rabbi at my side. Her strength reminded me of standing on the edge of a cliff below an expansive sky; I might feel the wind and gasp, and think I was flying, but I still knew that rock and solid ground were beneath my feet. There was enough power in her presence to fuel us both and probably the first few rows of people, as well.
I do remember the HaMelech section of the Amidah, a one-line meditation on the phrase "the King." During practice I realized I could get carried away and do a bad impression of an opera singer, and so I concentrated on singing simply and cleanly. I tried to envision God as a sovereign--as the golden light through the stained glass windows of the church at my favorite time of Shabbat morning, right at the beginning of Musaf--as the subject of a triumphant early English psalm setting I had performed years before which imitated the sounds of ceremonial horns and asked, over and over again, "Who is the King of Glory?" As I sang HaMelech I imagined I was a servant talking to that magisterial figure in the clouds, a metaphor that finally made sense to me.
I shut my eyes for an instant, and then decided to keep them closed. In my a cappella days I knew a guy who always assumed a a beatific, somnolent expression when on stage: yes, I so enjoy hearing my own voice that looking at you, the audience, is a needless distraction. I (and many others) found his habit self-indulgent and insincere. It seemed disrespectful to ignore the very people who were listening to you. But in that moment of HaMelech I understood that concentrating on anyone but God would be a disservice to those in whose names I prayed. I had been carefully tracing each line in the machzor with my finger, and wondered if I would lose my bearings when I finally opened my eyes. But even in the dark I felt connected and safe.
Tomorrow at midnight is the service of Selihot, when we hear the High Holiday nusach for the first time this season and officially begin the marathon of prayer and discovery that continues for another four weeks, until the end of Simchat Torah. (And if I'm still not convinced that the holidays are starting, four rehearsals next week will get me in the mood.) On Selihot, explained the rabbi, the gates of heaven are open to their widest. Just as we might imagine God watching us from those gates, we should also look at ourselves from the same perspective. If we had God's view, what would we think?