Saturday, September 24, 2005

179. Floating

We the reached the final prayer of Shaharit, the Kaddish Shalem. The rabbi and I sang it at breakneck pace, according to custom, and then began the Torah service without a moment's pause. The Ark was opened, and I could feel the mood of the congregation, now standing, change from sleepy and expectant to alert and exuberant. A man and a woman removed the scrolls and embraced them to their hearts as I chanted the lines heralding their appearance. We turned to face the Ark and, a little louder than before, I led the Shema, proclaiming that God was in this place right now. I ignored the cantor's injunction not to imitate him. A little drama in my voice seemed appropriate, since no one in the universe was luckier than I was at that moment--I was God's MC. Nothing could beat that.

The people and Torahs began their procession around the church, and everyone pressed into the ends of the pews to reach and kiss the passing scrolls with the fringes of their tallitot or corners of their prayer books. Years before, when we had services at the massive Christian Science church and I sang way up in the balcony with the choir, I'd race down a flight of marble steps and jostle for a spot in the crowd as soon as the Ark was opened. I was superstitious; on this day, especially, I needed to get as close to that parchment as possible.

Now, from up front, all the people looked like filings drawn to a traveling magnet, waves of them advancing and retreating as the parade moved past each aisle. For the first time ever, I wasn't part of that rush--the scrolls would come back to me, and I would get to touch them with my tallit right before they were rolled opened on the bima for the Torah reading.

My part was now over. The reading began, and I went to find a seat with my friends in the choir. The choir director stopped me as I passed. She wasn't smiling--she looked almost agitated--and I got worried. Did I make some sort of huge mistake?

She gave me a big hug. "It's like you've been doing this all your life," she said, yelling over the music. "You have to do more." She was right; it felt, in a strange way, like I was supposed to be up there.

I tried to pay attention to the reading and sermon, but was still floating somewhere above the dome of the church. Midway though the service, an elderly man on his way up to the bima for an aliyah tripped and hit his head on a step, and fell down unconscious. The paramedics, stationed right in front of the church along with a large cadre of burly Israeli security guards, appeared instantly and hovered for many minutes as the service came to a halt. The rabbi asked us all to sing a niggun to help him heal. So we did, 1,200 people humming a soft tune as the paramedics put the man, who had come to and seemed OK, on a gurney and took him out of the church.

The service resumed, and the rabbi announced the scrolls' impending return to the Ark. I suddenly remembered that my part was, in fact, not over. (I now have many big notes in my machzor like: "DON'T SIT, THERE'S MORE!!"). I jumped up and ran back to the bima, and watched the procession once again circle the aisles so that we could bid farewell to the scrolls. I sang the sad, hopeful melody of Etz Chayim:

It is a tree of life for those who grasp it...
Its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace

Help us turn to You, and we shall return
Renew our lives as in days of old.

The next and longest part of the service was Musaf, led by a young rabbi who was a member of the congregation. She had a beautiful and expressive voice, but had problems staying on key. I imagined some uncomfortable last-minute phone calls between she and the cantor and now understood why I was asked to lead the Torah service, usually done by the Musaf shaliach.

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