Monday, November 20, 2006

407. Pain and comfort

I've written before about my good and challenging experiences attending shiva minyanim. This weekend, for the first time, I led one of these. Awhile back the rabbi taught a few laypeople how to do so, in case there were a bunch of deaths and not enough real leaders available, i.e. the combined dozen rabbis, rabbinic students, and rabbi members of the congregation. It's a short service, not hard at all. The part that got me nervous was inviting and listening to memories of the deceased, and running the overall proceedings. And perhaps saying something Torah-related in hopes of offering a comforting insight. But I knew I could do it if the rabbis believed I could, even though my role to date has been to open my mouth and sing, not speak.

Time passed, and I wasn't asked. In any case, I wasn't prepared; I meant to learn the correct weekday evening nusah (the specific melody that goes with the prayers), but never got around to it. Then I got a phone call on Thursday--could I lead Saturday night? I was too embarrassed to admit I only knew half of havdalah, the prayers at the conclusion of Shabbat; a friend graciously played a tape into my answering machine. I didn't remember until the next day that I didn't know the nusah, so the rabbi kindly and calmly taught it to me over the phone. I tried to think of a few wise words to share having to do with the week's parasha, which opens with Sarah's death--but nothing appropriate came to mind, because I didn't know the deceased.

It went well, if you can say that about an occasion where people have to confront recent, unbearable pain. In a way it was easier for me than being an attendee--I had something to do, some control over the situation, and so felt less helpless and more able to bear the sadness and discomfort in the room. Once again I wished I had known the strong, funny, complicated person who was described with such love by his family, and hoped my parents, for whom I barely sat shiva so many years ago, were watching from wherever.


Rachel said...

Yasher koach to you for doing this! May you go from strength to strength.

The first time I led a shiva minyan was last spring. I didn't know the weekday nusach; I only knew that it existed and I didn't know it. I tried to learn it from Fortunately a friend of mine was visiting -- a rabbinic student at RRC -- and she sang it to me until I more-or-less knew how it went.

I'm not surprised that in some way the minyan was easier for you as a leader than as an attendee. As you say, you had a thing to do -- not just lend your presence, but actively help make the minyan happen. That can really help, I think, with the vague feeling of discomfort that evenings like this one can involve.

For what it's worth, I am now a huge fan of hazzan Jack Kessler's "Learn to Daven!" cds, which include the complete weekday service, morning and evening, sung in the appropriate nuscha'ot. He has a warm, rich voice and an appropriately non-flowery style, and the cds are great. (He's also a great guy to learn from -- what I know of nusach, I'm learning from him at DLTI -- but I think the cd would be great even if I didn't know him.)

It amazes me sometimes how much we stretch when we rise to expectations. I think of you leading this minyan, or me chanting Torah for the first time in 19 years. (And now it's possible I will be presented with an opportunity which will obligate me to learn Torah and haftarah trope *pronto*, which is vaguely terrifying!) If we didn't have these opportunities to lead, we might not learn the way we do. It makes me grateful for the people who think we can do these things, and because they think we can, we find out that they're right.

alto artist said...

Thank you so much--and yasher koach to you in advance for upcoming Torah/haftarah chanting adventures! I am eternally, constantly grateful to the rabbis and cantor for their trust and the opportunities to do things I never imagained, in my wildest dreams, I would or could. I try (with only partial success) to remember that sense of exceeding my own expectations when faced with other challenges in the rest of life...

We don't do things at my synagogue quite like anyone else, so the only way I can learn nusach, etc., the way it's expected of me in this context is directly from the source, or from other people at my synagogue who already know it. Makes life very interesting!