At the end of every Friday evening service at my synagogue the rabbi offers a blessing, words found both in Psalm 29 and the Shabbat morning liturgy: "Adonai oz l'amo yiten; Adonai yivarech et amo vashaslom." "May God bless humanity with strength; may God bless humanity with peace." I had long forgotten the meaning of those lines when I listened to them six years ago, the first time since I was a kid. I was immediately intrigued by the sound of one word, in particular: "oz." Too embarrassed by my ignorance during those initial months of discovery to ask anyone for a translation, I still knew it had to be important; the rabbi always preceded "oz" with a slight pause, and gave it just a bit more emphasis than its companion syllables. The whisper of the "z," like a breath, the vibration of a hundred soft voices, a kiss, made me shiver. When I learned that the quiet persistence of "oz" meant "strength," I began to fall in love with the Hebrew language. How amazing to include the sound of compassion in a word about power.
I thought of those sounds, and others, during this morning's d'var Torah, offered by a member of the congregation. He contrasted Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, in which percussive words of hope at the beginning of the Israelites' journey dance joyfully in staggered lines across the parchment, with the poem in this week's portion, Ha'azinu. It's written in the scroll as two narrow columns, rhythmically heavy language divided by an empty space that represents Moshe's absence from the promised land, and also perhaps the hole in his heart. The Torah provides us with a multimedia experience millennia ahead of its time. I realized, while listening to this d'var, that the Shaharit service I sang on Yom Kippur morning was Shirat HaYam, as I tried with all my energy to make strong, clear sounds to help carry us on a day-long voyage of hope. And Ne'ila, nine hours later, when I was tired, hungry, and doubting that my words of contrition had even come close to those gates, was Ha'azinu, a final loud and hoarse entreaty. As I sang, I wished my Hebrew were fluent; how could I communicate meaning if I could not, at that instant, think it? I struggled with this all day on Yom Kippur, as I tried to formulate my own lists, intentions, and apologies, but could only conjure wordless yearning and regret about what I had done and not done. I became frustrated at the refusal of my thoughts to become verbal at prescribed moments. But as the day grew longer, I became aware that if my voice was honest and from a place of hope or despair, if I didn't cheat and try to hide from myself or God, then maybe the music would be equal in prayer and meaning to the words themselves. Then the sounds, rhythms and spaces would get the message across, just as they do in the Torah scroll. Whether I was able to do this, I have no idea. But I tried.