Friday, November 30, 2007

571. Hurrah!

It got a little more difficult this final week, but I did it--a post each day for all of November. Whew. I didn't finish everything I wanted to say, but there are many, many non-NaBloPoMo months ahead. More posts to follow--perhaps not EVERY day, but close. Please stay tuned, and Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

570. Pillow-top

This post is about neither singing nor Judaism--although you could say that life is always about connecting to Something Greater, which I find within the context of Judaism. Which means everything I write is, by default, on topic. Today I bought a new mattress, to be delivered tomorrow. I can't really afford it, but months of waking up with backaches finally convinced me to take the plunge. One reason I waited to so long is that I can generally fall asleep anywhere--on a couch, sitting up in a chair, whatever. I like to sleep and seem to have a talent for it, although don't get nearly enough practice. That I was able to remain unconscious for many hours at a stretch on my current rocky plain of springs and cotton helped me delay this purchase for many years. Then last week a friend spoke in ecstasy about her new bed, and I was jealous--and realized Something Greater was giving me a hint.

As a child I was taught, rather vehemently, that the purpose of a mattress was to offer support, end of story. Mushy beds were coveted by mushy, spineless people. It didn't help that my college roommate had a board under her mattress (the closest she could come to the sensation of a sleeping bag in the woods, her preferred habitat), and my post-college boyfriend opted for the Marine-quality brand. I would never admit to them, or anyone else, that I yearned to sink nightly into a sea of fluff. I've purchased two prior mattresses in my lifetime, and in both cases stood in the store struggling with the words of past and present loved ones in one ear ("You're strong! You don't need pillow-top!") and the Heavenly Messenger of Comfort in the other ("You know you want it!"). I remained stoic.

But now I understand that I'm honoring God with this new mattress. God wants us to sleep--we're ordered to rest on Shabbat, and during the week must have energy to work. So sleep is surely a mitzvah that keeps us alive and able to fulfill God's commandments. And we're instructed to perform mitzvot with a measure of elegance and beauty (hiddur mitzvah)--I could indeed sleep on the floor, but this new mattress will raise the experience to a level of art I know God will appreciate.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Tomorrow night, accompanied by the Angel of Hedonism, I will experience my very first pillow-top Shabbat.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

568. With feathers

Some days a person just doesn't feel like writing. But NaBloPoMo continues until Friday, so here I am. This month has been a great exercise for me, proof that I always have something to say even when I'm sure I don't.

Tonight the one word that comes to mind is "hope":

Israelis, Palestinians agree on framework for peace talks

Monday, November 26, 2007

567. The right time

I did it--two hours of Hebrew homework before I started the work day. And I also managed to get to the gym. I'm exhausted, but my brain feels just a little more full than yesterday.

Much of what I'm learning in this class is familiar, things I sort of halfway know by osmosis or learned a few years ago during a tutorial. (We met in a diner under the elevated subway tracks, an excellent place to study Torah.) Some skills I can pick up on my own, like the design software I use in my work life; not so with language, which require drills, repetition, and a great teacher in order to stick in my head. Every class and page in the textbook has been an aha! moment, and the Torah portion I'm now learning is starting to make sense as intuitive grammar rather than discrete words all strung together. I don't know why I didn't take this class years ago. For whatever reason, I wasn't ready.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

566. A person-flower

Whenever I feel old, I remember the things that haven't changed since I was a callow youth--in particular, my sometimes poor time-management skills. I spent the day working, and will get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to finish the Hebrew homework I could have done two weeks ago, but did not. (I haven't yet written about this class, which is fantastic, challenging and completely different than last year's fun but kind of boring and way too easy one.)

So I will grab a few hours' sleep and let Abraham Joshua Heschel finish today's post:

My Seal
Why am I not a flower,
a person-flower?

Bless me, my spirit
with tenderness instead of might!

To own smiles instead of words,
and always being light to the world.

To be able to give love, good fortune
with my hair, like orchids.

And may my way through rooms be
like finger-touches on piano keys.

Tenderness, you ineffable name of God,
be my image of God!

--from The Ineffable Name of God: Man

Saturday, November 24, 2007

565. Coming soon

If not for the fact that night is now falling during the afternoon, I would refuse to believe December is next week. But today's glass-blue sky, and patterns on shoulders and tallitot of white sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows of the church where we have services, has convinced me otherwise. The end of autumn is coming. As is, um, how do you spell that again?

Time to scour the neighborhood for non-drip candles (I waited too long last year and spent hours scraping wax off my menorah as a result).

Friday, November 23, 2007

564. Energy, part 4

(Continued from here.)

Another moment from last Friday's service:

We always sing a soft niggun at the end of the silent Amidah to ease us away from personal reverie and back into the consciousness of the group. The rabbis lead the tune, and I always marvel at how it seems plucked from thin air (I'm pretty sure they don't choose in advance). This evening I finish the prayer, walk back to the bima, and listen for the rabbi. I don't recognize his melody at first, but then hear the refrain and the words he doesn't sing:

Oifn pripitchik, brente fayerel... (On the little hearth, a fire is burning and the school room is so warm, and the rabbi teaches small children the aleph beys [ABCs]. Pay attention children, think, you dear ones, on what you are learning here...)

We've used this tune before, although not for quite awhile. Everyone hums along, but I'm speechless for a few seconds. Tomorrow is my father's yahrzeit, and he sang this to me all the time when I was a very little kid--my mother, too. I never understood the words; my parents made a point of not teaching me Yiddish, whether because they wanted to be able speak to each other in private or believed I had no need for it as modern American, I'll never know. I always had a sense that they were embarrassed to know the language at all, as if it were horribly archaic and irrelevant. But they did use it, and those sounds always remind me of a simple and safe part of my life. And make me miss what's gone, but how can I be sad this evening as I stand surrounded by hearts warmer than any fireplace? I hear "Oifn pripitchek" and imagine my father humming along from somewhere, a little off-key, as always, proud and smiling and glad to be remembered.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

563. Grateful once again

I've posted these words before, but can't hear them enough:

"To pray is to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers--wiser than all alphabets--clouds that die constantly for the sake of God's glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting. Suddenly we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I attended the interfaith service again this year, a most gentle hour and a half. There were prayers and readings from scripture (including a riveting telling of the Passover story by a minister who sounded unlike anyone I've ever heard around the seder table), but our common language was music: a Japanese song on koto; a gospel choir; a bell accompanying Buddhist meditation as we envisioned all beings as happy, well and peaceful; Native American chant; a Methodist hymn; Violetta Parra's "Gracias A La Vida"; Aaron Copland's "At the River"; Hineh ma tov ("Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in harmony").

Then I went to dinner with friends, the wonderful sounds still reverberating in my mind and mixing with the taste of pita and olive oil. Tonight, another tradition: Thanksgiving dinner with more great friends and my dearest relative at a new restaurant (she gets to pick each year, as she's a foodie). How grateful I am to spend this day with family I love (vs. family I'm obliged to endure while stuffing my face with turkey as football blares in the background). I am also grateful to have no need or desire to run to Sears at 4AM on this lovely Black Friday. May we all have the luxury of sitting home today and doing nothing except writing in our blogs!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

562. Energy, part 3

(Continued from here.)

We reach the end of Mizmor LeDavid and the rabbi slows down; I follow suit. But the musicians don't agree; their pace remains steady and they get a little louder, a bit more forceful. Each note sounds more purposeful then the one before. I think I know what they're about to do: create a deliberate, measured pace, and then speed up again. I wait--just a few seconds, but the tension is unbearable--and am ready to move faster at a second's notice and spin into the frenzy for which they're surely preparing. I feel giddy and complicit in this shaping of communal mood, certain that no one but those of us up front can guess the thrilling secret about to be released. And impatient--start now, you back there with the drum! I implore telepathically. Don't torture them! Don't make them wait any longer!

Then I notice the rabbi's hand motioning below the bima so only myself and the musicians can see: lower, lower. He knows what's happening, of course, probably sensed it even before any of us had a clue. It's not time yet; just a few more minutes and everyone will be done climbing and be ready to jump. For an instant I feel like I've been slapped in the face, and stop singing. The musicians slow down immediately and guiltily, I imagine. How could we have misjudged, and why can't I go there now? But then I see everyone looking up and waiting to hear what the rabbi has to say, and my self-recrimination disappears as quickly as it arrived. Faces and shoulders relax as calm and anticipation wash over us like cool rain. He was right--just a few more minutes.


After services, there's a community dinner and guest speaker. I've missed the first half, the eating part, since the dinner began after the early service. I've asked a friend to save me some food and there it is, heaped on a plate. I arrive just as everyone is singing zemirot, and devour potato kugel while surrounded on all sides by voices and music. I suddenly remember a time, years before, when I fell asleep on a sofa during a break in the middle of the day at an a cappella workshop, and opened my eyes to see a group of faces right above me singing Monteverdi's madrigal "Zefiro torna" ("Return, O Zephyr, and with gentle motion/Make pleasant the air and scatter the grasses in waves"). They were the zephyrs come to life, and tonight all my friends at the dinner are the Shekhina, the Shabbat bride, preparing my table and teaching me to rest.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

561. Energy, part 2

(Continued from here.)

The rabbi is standing next to me and so I can't actually see him, but keep expecting big, multicolored, concentric waves of his energy, like round, fuzzy neon tubes, to bump me on the shoulder or at least appear in my peripheral vision. Joy explodes from his hands as they pound on the bima, and I'm infected as well--I keep forgetting where I am, and every few moments notice I'm banging on the table with my palm as I sing, and stop self-consciously. I'm really not trying to imitate him. But then I start again. I feel like two people, one so happy I can barely breathe and another hyper-vigilant, aware of the rabbi's every twitch and trying to stay one beat ahead of the musicians so I don't lose my place.

(Continued here.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

560. Energy, part 1

A moment from this past Friday evening:

We reach Mizmor LeDavid, the prayer that comes right before Lekha Dodi, which is the official opening prayer, as it were, of Shabbat. We dance to Lekha Dodi at my synagogue, always to one of many different fast, rousing tunes. Mizmor LeDavid can be fast, too, but when the energy level seems low, the rabbis sing it at a slower, more contemplative pace.

This night the warm-up of psalms hasn't yet brought us anywhere near Shabbat-appropriate ecstasy, so Mizmor LeDavid is mellow and relaxed. As an experiment, the set-up of the Sanctuary has changed: service leaders (tonight, myself and a rabbi) stand at a bima, with the musicians to our right and behind. I can tell that the congregation is a little unsettled by this, as am I; for the past two years, rabbis and kahal alike sat together in a big semi-circle. But the musicians had trouble hearing one another, so we're going back to the old way for while. Although I miss the electricity of being enveloped by the ensemble, standing in front reminds me of the High Holy Days. I am immediately more confident (and it's easier to breathe, too.)

(Continued here.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

559. Egg salad

One day soon I will again have time and energy to write something substantial, but I don't think it's today.

The reason why is a good one, though--I spent all afternoon talking about social action with other members of my synagogue as part of a community-based organizing initiative. The first step is figuring out what issues move us and spur us to action (and the half of a step after that is eating lots of bagels and egg salad, which we also did very well).

I rounded off the evening with continued email angst, but I think it's solved now. The coming week will bring lots of work and even more eating (and, unless I want to hate myself forever, a few trips to the gym). And more thinking and writing about the wonderful Shabbat evening that just passed.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

558. Scintillating

Instead of writing or otherwise having fun, I spent a lovely evening after Shabbat ended migrating my Eudora email box to Apple Mail. This was a less than scintillating activity having nothing to do with chanting Torah that took many hours instead of the few minutes I had planned, but it's done. I hope to have a little more time tomorrow to think of loftier things, like singing and laundry.

Friday, November 16, 2007

557. More to come...

I helped lead Shabbat services again last night, first time since March. So much fun! More to come tomorrow, and continue having a Shabbat Shalom, everyone.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

556. Angels

If not for NaBloPoMo, this would be one of those days when I get into bed, remember I didn't write in this blog, feel guilty, feel guiltier about the deadline I will surely miss because I'm too old for all-nighters and decide to go to sleep instead, conclude that sleep trumps guilt, and then have nice dreams. Instead I will experience marginally less guilt because I am, at least, writing. I spent a few hours this afternoon after a trip to the ophthalmologist walking around Manhattan with dilated pupils. Herald Square a week before Thanksgiving is always otherworldly, but at dusk, with rain changing illuminated signs and traffic lights into glowing, crystalline orbs that are further magnified by my drugged eyes--I felt like I was walking among the angels. Addled angels, but mysterious creatures nevertheless. I dodged them left and right, and somehow made it into the subway and back uptown. Then I sat in an empty diner for an hour to recover. As pharmaceutically enhanced adventures go, this one was interesting and not at all scary.

Tomorrow evening I'm helping to lead Shabbat services (it's been awhile), and then chanting Torah the following morning. Those experiences now seem more real to me than the frenzy of Herald Square, one of the most familiar places I know; my mother and I went to Macy's every week or so for years when I was a kid. Those angels in the traffic lights have been doing their jobs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

555. Words

"Meditation is like being at your own funeral, except you're not dead," said the teacher at tonight's contemplative practice class.

It was quite a statement, and people gasped. What he meant was that if we could be present at own eulogies, we would hear the most profound, glorious, tragic moments of our lives summed up in anecdote form: "The relationship was difficult." "She loved her children more than the world." "They lived for each other." How many tears fell for each of those words?

We strive, during meditation, to make the millions of words that describe our complicated lives fall away and leave in their wake a simpler awareness of being. In silence we watch as they turn into anecdotes that float past with each breath, and then disappear until the moment we open our eyes. (We hope they will be slower and calmer upon their return.) Contemplative practice can teach us that the novels of our lives are really just anecdotes, and that the extraneous bulk of words and worries we create all day long stands in the way of noticing what's really important: breath, nature, peace.

I hope, one day in this lifetime, to be able to do this rather than just write about it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

554. Motion

My choral conductors and vocal coaches over the years all agreed on one piece of wisdom: don't move. I had a great deal of trouble standing still when I sang; in my college choir I won the "Most Animated" award. But as I joined smaller and smaller groups, I learned that every sway back and forth was energy lost, potential power you couldn't to apply to the sound. And motion is distracting to the audience, as well--an a cappella group shouldn't look like tall grass on a windy day.

I learned to stand still. Then I came to my synagogue, and stood among the congregation during prayer--and kept hearing the ghosts of my teachers: "Don't move!" But everyone else was swaying and, anyway, no one was listening to me. My sounds were private; this wasn't a performance.

But it wasn't easy to follow the orders of the voices in my head, because the entire congregation seemed to move in unison with one another's breath. There was no violent shuckling (like the stories of ancient rabbis lurching with such intensity that they ended upon the other side of the room), but rather a gentle wave across the rows. Eventually I started swaying, too, just a little bit. It felt subversive but good, and the rhythm of motion was like an instrument accompanying my prayer.

During services this past Shemini Atzeret, I found myself moving differently than usual, front to back instead of side to side. Suddenly I had a sensation of déjà vu: I knew this dance. I closed my eyes and saw sunlight streaming into my parents' bedroom window, and my father's silhouette as he wound his arms with tefillin. And then he swayed, back and forth, back and forth, just as I did this day while early morning light poured onto my tallit-wrapped shoulders.

Monday, November 12, 2007

553. Even better than carbonated brisket?

Just in time for the holidays (cross-posted from a few other sites, and I must do my part to spread the word):

"Seattle soda-maker promises ham flavor will be kosher"
The Associated Press

SEATTLE — It's rare to find kosher ham. Rarer still to find it carbonated and bottled.

Jones Soda Co., the Seattle-based purveyor of offbeat fizzy water, said Friday that it was shelving its traditional seasonal flavors of turkey and gravy this year to produce limited-edition theme packs for Christmas and Hanukkah...

...The Christmas pack will feature such flavors as Sugar Plum, Christmas Tree, Egg Nog and Christmas Ham. The Hanukkah pack will have Jelly Doughnut, Apple Sauce, Chocolate Coins and Latkes sodas.

"As always, both packs are kosher and contain zero caffeine," a Jones news release noted. (More...)

hmm, I've always wondered what ham tastes like...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

552. Simhat Torah 5768, part 6

(Continued from here.)

Hagbah! What was I thinking? I completely forgot to mention the awesome moment, right before I walked up to the bima, when the Torah was lifted and, in one seamless, gymnastic motion, flipped from end to beginning so we could start the unbroken story once again from the same scroll.

Hagbah on Simhat Torah usually gives me chills. This year, not so much; my heart was already skipping beats in anticipation of the reading to come.


From behind the sefer Torah I see my friends and community crowding around the bima, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the words that look back up at me. Yesterday after Shemini Atzeret morning services, I had the rare opportunity to practice from this very same scroll. I speed-chanted self-consciously as everyone milled around and pretended not to listen, and the gabbai followed along from a pocket-sized humash with print so minuscule I wondered if he really did have it all memorized, and never needed to look. The rabbi came by for a minute and leaned over and whispered, "Beautiful!" Whew, sighed the irrational part of my brain; at least I know I learned the right section.

I stumbled over one trop in the paragraph about the sixth day, despite all those months of practice. I had worried, from the moment I began to learn, that I might start to cry at the line about the creation of man betzelem Elohim, in God's image. I think I was a little afraid to learn that part as a result.

Now I look down at the scroll and see the same odd crease on the right side of the parchment that I noticed yesterday. I place the tiny index finger of my yad above the first word, and take a deep breath.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

551. Brisket and laughter

The tunes of prayers change often at my synagogue, unlike at 99% of synagogues in the universe. No decision of a ritual committee is involved, and most of the time I don't think the cantor himself knows what's happening until he sings something different. It keeps our spiritual muscles on their toes; I love that prayer can take on a new flavor when least expected. This morning I came to services happy from a warm, intimate evening with my havurah, but also exhausted and not feeling great, and trying to stave off uninvited voices in my head yelling about deadlines and bills. I felt a little better once we started praying and singing. But just a little.

Then we got to Psalm 136, Hodu l'Adonai ki tov, ki leolam hasdo, "Praise God, Who is good and Whose kindness is forever," also one of Passover's greatest hits. We usually sing this to a fast, upbeat tune also used a little later in the morning service for Az yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea. But today the cantor chose a jauntier melody I hear once a year at a seder I've attended for over a decade, a hoarily monotonous version of the ritual conducted by dear friends that brings back memories of the Dry and Boring Years before I started going to my synagogue. I love it nevertheless, because I get to be with wonderful people and see the holiday through the eyes of their brilliant children. And, oh yes, eat incredible food.

And every year at my friends' seder, we're roused from our Maxwell House haggadah-induced lethargy the instant we begin Ki leolam hasdo. Along with its first notes this morning, I can practically smell brisket in the oven and hear the infectious laughter of my friends' daughters, which completely drowns out the crabby, kvetchy sounds stuck in my head from before.

Friday, November 09, 2007

550. Simhat Torah 5768, part 5

(Continued from here.)

And then the music slows, and we gather at the center of the Sanctuary once again. The gabbai, who has this part of the ritual down to a science, having stage-managed the past few dozen Simhat Torahs, signals my designated "huppah captain" to gather up the other huppah-bearers. Created by the whole congregation last year in honor of our new Torah, it's really, really, big. My friends are not; the gabbai gets a little frantic as he watches them struggle to hold the poles aloft. I'm reminded of my friend D'.s wedding, where actual tiny pieces of furniture hung from a lovingly handmade, unbearably heavy huppah, one corner of which was my responsibility. My arms began to hurt a few minutes into the service, and then my whole body. As I grew numb from the shoulders down, the rabbi gave me a scary look that said: hold on, you weak and horrible person. You drop the pole, you ruin your friends' lives forever. I continued to hold the pole, trying to avoid writhing visibly in agony.

I'm glad I have no idea, at this moment, that my friends are feeling equivalent pain. All I can hear is my rabbi calling me to the bima:

"Requesting permission from God exalted beyond all song and adoration, awesome beyond all praise and acclamation, the essence of wisdom and power, eternal Ruler, master of creation. And requesting permission of the Torah, whose royal splendor is enhanced with inner beauty...[more purple prose, etc. etc.]...The choice has been made, with all in unity; one we have chosen from this community, one who is true-hearted, deep in pursuit of kindness and justice, in paths of truth succeeding, one inspired to be first at the renewal of the Torah's reading. Since yours is the privilege to begin our fulfillment of this reading, setting a fine example, your portion is so goodly and your reward will be so ample."

Arise, arise, arise, [insert name], Kallat Bereshit Bera, to greet the great and awesome God with adoration, with the permission of this holy congregation, which will respond to your blessing with Amen in acclamation."

(From Siddur Sim Shalom)

I'm glad the words are in Hebrew, or else I would burst into tears as I did when I read them in the siddur the night before. My pulse pounds in my ears; my palms are ice cold; the only example I want to set is to remain conscious while reading. The rabbi sings out my name, and I walk up to the Torah scroll.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

549. Gezundheit

Interrupting the story (but still living up to my end of the NaBloPoMo bargain!) because I have to go to sleep early instead of write; I seem to be coming down with a cold, and can barely keep my eyes open. Hoping this one is short and sweet, since next weekend I'll be chanting Torah, helping lead services, AND hosting 15 people for lunch. Sneezing would be inconvenient. So I'll simply note that a few days ago, someone in India found this blog by typing:

whom to pray to get good marks in the exam

I hope you found the answer and an A+ (although I strongly doubt that I helped).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

548. Simhat Torah 5768, part 4

(Continued from here.)

As his friends and family hold the huppah, the Hatan Torah, honored for leading morning minyan a few days week for well over a decade, approaches the bima as the rabbi sings a long, beautiful, and kind of over the top but exquisitely heartfelt traditional invitation:

"Requesting permission of God, mighty, awesome, and revered, and requesting permission of the Torah, our precious treasure which we celebrate, I lift up my voice in song with gratitude in praise of the One Who dwells in sublime light, Who has granted us life and sustained us with faith's purity, Who has allowed us to reach this day of rejoicing in the Torah which grants honor and splendor, life and security, which brings joy to the heart and light to the eyes, and happiness to us when we incorporate its values which we cherish. The Torah grants long days and strength to those who love and observe it, heeding its warnings absorbed in it with reverence and love without setting prior conditions. May it be the will of the Almighty to grant life, lovingkindness, and a crown of blessings in abundance to [insert name] who has been chosen for this reading of the Torah at its conclusion.

Arise, arise, arise, [insert name], Hatan Bereshit Bara, to greet the great and awesome God with adoration, with the permission of this holy congregation, which will respond to your blessing with Amen in acclamation."


The ecstatic chaos of a few minutes ago has given way way to a room full of people holding their breath in anticipation of that last word, "Yisrael," whose final lamed, added to the bet of "Bereshit," the very beginning of the Torah, spells "lev": heart. Which is what the other 79,845 words in between are really all about, when you get down to it. The Hatan Torah recites the first blessing and begins to read the concluding paragraph of the Torah. (One doesn't have to chant in order to receive an aliyah, but since he and I know how, we get to be doubly nervous this afternoon.) He finishes, and sings the final blessing--and the rabbis grab his hands and pull him into a dance beneath the huppah, a tight, dizzy circle that soon widens to invite us all. I fly around the bima a few times and then stand back and drown in ambient music and motion, clutching my yad for dear life.

(Continued here.)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

547. More thinking about silence

Tonight I went to another class, with a different teacher than before, about how to lead contemplative services. I didn't agree with all aspects of his approach, but he raised some good questions:

• Does the contemplative aspect of the service lead us into prayer, or is prayer a gateway to deeper exploration of the contemplative? If participants are less "traditional" and more comfortable with meditative practice than sitting through a service, the first focus might be better. But if they (like most people who go to Friday night services) are a little afraid of the whole sitting in silence thing, consider the second approach.

• Are you, the leader, prepared? Can you draw upon your own experiences of contemplative prayer while engaged in your chosen approach (chanting, sitting in silence, movement, etc.)? It's one thing to have a plan, and another to have real kavannah while enacting it. The teacher also suggested that the leader keep some emotional distance during the service to make sure her personal moments of prayer don't isolate her from an awareness of the needs of the congregation. This is where I disagree; the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I've seen, close-up, how the shaliah tzibur can pray deeply while also remaining completely in charge, sharing energy with the people in the pews, trading focus and strength back and forth. Acting is never required, just honesty, nor must you wring yourself empty of emotion. It seems, from my very limited experience, that you can pace yourself during prayer, be very aware of the room and its inhabitants, and still have some energy left over for yourself. But it takes practice, and a congregation willing to be a partner rather than a passive audience. Because if you, the leader, have to do all the work--yes, you will burn out, or worse, learn to give less and less of yourself.

We reached no conclusions, but now I have even more to think about while preparing to help lead a contemplative havdalah service in a few days.

Monday, November 05, 2007

546. Simhat Torah 5768, part 3

(Continued from here.)

It's the seventh hakafah. I start to get nervous, and know I'm being ridiculous; I have never been in a safer place in all my life. The chaos of spinning and shmoozing begins to re-shape around a bima in the center of the room surrounded by rings of people sitting on the floor, little kids on laps, and teenagers in clumps toward the back, the rest of us jockeying for a small patch of carpet. I usually sit way up front, but today stand off to the side with the friends who will soon hold four poles of a huppah above my head. I want them all to be around me so I can feel their strength, and stop shaking.

The rabbi with the beautiful voice reads Vezot Haberacha, the last section of the Torah. He sings the name of each tribe with such reverence and love that I can picture Moshe standing there invoking the individual blessings, his right hand resting gently on the shoulder of the younger man. I wonder if Benjamin prayed for God to re-think God's plan while he was trying to listen to these final words of wisdom--how could he concentrate, knowing his beloved Moshe would soon be gone from this world?

Now we get to the last few lines and the Hatan Torah, the man receiving the honor of reading the end of the Torah, gathers behind the bima with his family and friends.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

545. Simhat Torah 5768, part 2

(Continued from here.)

The Simhat Torah morning service is my favorite of the year. Everyone is exhausted from last night's party, and it doesn't seem possible that we can be any happier today--but we are. The Sanctuary has been cleared of chairs, so we each grab our own from stacks lining the walls and create wavy, drunken-looking rows close to the Ark, as if we can't bear to be too far away from the scrolls after so many hours holding them close. We pray quietly and I feel joy start to fill the room like wine poured slowly into a goblet. The words we whisper and patterns of sunlight on the carpet are no different than any other early morning, but I can hear in the spaces between verses, see in our smiles hello and quick turning of pages the anticipation of flying around the room once again, hands clasped tighter than ever as we wait for the moment of beginning, of hearing new songs in old words.

This year I get to chant those words. Usually I show up in sneakers and a T-shirt appropriate to the dishevelment of dancing every single hakafah (circuit around the room), but today I wear a fancy skirt in honor of reading the beginning of Bereshit, and my feet hurt in new shoes. I don't mind. I dance like a child pushed on a swing: more! faster! higher! taking breaks to greet friends and run out to the street corner, the only quiet place on the entire block, in order to practice my portion for the ten thousandth time. I want the melody to become automatic, part of my breath, so I can see those birds and beasts and creeping things clearly in my mind's eye as I sing.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

544. The world to come

At havdalah this evening we studied chapter 8 of Heschel's The Sabbath:

"...And yet to Rabbi Hayim of Krasne the Sabbath contains more than a morsel of eternity. To him the Sabbath is the fountainhead (ma'yan) of eternity, the well from which heaven or the life in the world to come takes its source."

Explained our rabbi: We speak of the Sabbath taking on qualities of haolam habah, life to come, as if little pieces of the promise of ultimate wholeness could rain down upon us like heaven-sent crumbs. But what if the opposite were true, as the Hassidic master suggests--if the heart of perfection originated down here, within us all?

Can I imagine a life of Shabbatot--of rest, song, study, love, companionship--as the ultimate expression of being human, fuel to bring the world to a state of peace and equilibrium? I don't know. Last night, many hours before feasting on this teaching, I dreamt I arrived at services only to learn that Shabbat had already happened--on Sunday and Wednesday! Saturday would henceforth be the week's third day of rest. I was confused. What prayers do we say now? I asked the rabbi. He sat me down and began to explain; it was complicated. Why can't we go back to one Shabbat a week? I demanded. We've grown beyond that, he answered.

I woke up in a daze, wondering why my subconscious wanted to trade in a lovely 2BR prewar WBFP condo of the day of rest for a Trump Tower penthouse version. The Sabbath is palace--no need for satellite offices. If the spark of haolam habah really does begin down here, I have a feeling our collective hearts provide enough space for it to grow. If only we could learn to see its light within all those other crowded rooms.

Friday, November 02, 2007

543. At the well

Having recovered, more or less, from holiday craziness, I've signed up to read Torah again in a few weeks. I enjoyed the month-long break with nothing to study, was able to catch up on work and go to the gym a little more often, but woke up one day and realized... I had nothing to study! I had no reason to to get up a half hour earlier than usual and sing, or put off calling a client in order to run to the copy shop and Xerox a few pages of the tikkun, or wait for that moment of small triumph when, for the first time after endless repetition, I could to read a tricky verse from the left side of the page. I had no Shabbat mornings on the calendar when I knew my hands would break out into a cold sweat as I walked up to the bima but stop shaking once words in the scroll pulled me into their curves and angles, as if each stroke had reached out in an embrace.

So in a few weeks I'll be chanting a short section of Parashat Vayetze, when Jacob first meets Rachel:

Vayishak Ya'akov le-Rachel vayisa et-kolo vayevk.

Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.

I break out into a big smile whenever I practice this line. I can see them standing by the well astonished at each other's beauty, as if the sun had blinded them by bursting, without warning, over the crest of a hill.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

542. NaBloPoMo, onchanting style

Before the clock strikes midnight, I'm announcing to the world that I've signed up for NaBloPoMo: one post a day for a month. If I finish... nothing happens, same as if I fail miserably. But it will be a little push to help me regain some of the discipline of regular writing that fell by the wayside because of the rest of of life, too much praying and singing, etc. Some days I may squeeze out just a line or two; I hope those instances are few. So please stay tuned for the rest of this story and maybe even this one, and who knows what else.