Should there be a heaven, and should I get to go there one day in the very, very distant future, there's no way I'll be impressed by any sounds the angels and their harps might happen to make. I've listened to, and sung with, the cantor at my synagogue. It doesn't get much better than that.
I had so much fun leading services on Friday that it felt like breaking a law. We--the rabbinic fellow, a woman with a good ear and sweet, generous voice; the cantor at his keyboard; a cellist, flutist, and singing percussionist; and myself--prayed in a way that felt like jazz improvisation, which I've never done, but imagine must generate the same kind of loving, skydiving, creative exhilaration. I hadn't led with the cantor since last year; I noticed, for the first time, how the musicians relax when he's in charge. Like a master pilot, there's no doubt that he'll steer perfectly, with a few interesting diversions along the way to make sure the trip doesn't get boring.
We were at the church, a big place where it's always harder than at the synagogue to feel the energy of the congregation. (In fact, starting in January we're going to have two successive Friday night services at the synagogue, rather than a simultaneous one at the church, to try and solve this problem.) Standing just a few feet away from the cantor, I was almost blindsided by waves of his intensity. Maybe because I was exhausted, maybe because the sound system had been changed and I could hear myself for the first time ever (who, I wondered when I first sang into the mic, is that voice right behind me? oh, it's me!), maybe because I was just having too much fun, I pretty much forgot that anyone was listening. It took a lot of concentration: do I sing harmony here, or is he trying for the greater energy of unison? What pattern of alternating voices is this (we created a few on the fly so complex that I probably couldn't follow them if they had been written down)? And, oh my goodness, is he really singing harmony under my melody? And a million other decisions I can't even articulate. It felt like we were weaving together a big, joyous fabric of praise that would have been incomplete if any one of our individual sounds had been missing.
I think the cantor was having fun, too. He started one prayer, which has alternate melodies, so slowly and quietly that even the musicians couldn't tell which version he chose. I couldn't see him from where I was standing, so this is just a guess--but I imagined him smiling, enjoying the game, waiting to see how many notes would go by before we caught on.
Wonderful experiences usually pass in the blink of an eye, but this one seemed to last forever, like I was luxuriating in a long, hot bath. I felt guilty; do I really deserve to be part of this shining thing, when everyone else has to sit way out there? Am I communicating with the congregation, or do I appear as self-centered as I feel right now? I did not (for the first time in quite a while) dwell on my doubts. I just kept listening, and singing.