Sunday, January 13, 2008

597. Knowing, part 2

(Continued from here.)

For me, I think singing in the context of prayer is a key to this deeper kind of knowledge. Unlike the model of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, where you learn and learn and continue to ascend, I reached this place reluctantly and unexpectedly. After years in a cappella groups, I was sure I had all the tools to coast along at the top of my circle of amateurs--and also that I lacked the emotional engagement to go any further. A teacher had told me so, had voiced my secret fear.

I was a snob when I first heard the music at my synagogue. Where were the glorious chord changes and complicated harmonies? It was pretty but just melody, boring and unsophisticated. Even when I began to study leyning, I was dismayed by the lack of Western musical notation. Learning by ear was for people who didn't know any better.

But a funny thing happened: chanting Torah turned out to be challenging and exhilarating, and felt completely natural--as if all my singing about lovelorn Italian peasants and, yes, Jesus' resurrection was just practice for a few minutes of holding a yad with shaky grip. I was even OK with the idea of people hearing my voice, after years of being sure my sound was the worst in any group of musicians. It probably was, because I didn't believe what I was singing. Now I did, which changed everything: I had a reason to sing, which led me to da'at, deeper awareness, and a reason for being Jewish and living a life in which I tried to make the world a better place. Not that I didn't want to do this before--I just didn't know why, so got lazy. I lived for myself alone.

R. Berlin compared knowledge to reaching a pinnacle. But my experience was more horizontal than vertical; I hadn't been climbing, but rather coasting along until I bumped into an open door. I think we tend to see life as a journey upwards: achieve! acquire more stuff! go beyond! But if we truly believe God is everywhere, we shouldn't have to scale a mountain in order to get closer. The angels on the ladder in Jacob's dream went down as well as up; the story was about movement, not ascending and staying. The key to being able to sing with all my heart did not come as a result of years of practice, of going higher and getting better, but rather by taking steps backwards and sideways. I think God likes those dances.

I worry, sometimes, that I will step in a different direction and find myself in a doorway that leads out. Faith arrived so suddenly that I'm afraid it might leave. I can't imagine it will, but I never thought I'd be writing any of these words, either.

Two years ago I wrote a d'var Torah on Parashat Tetzaveh, and next month will chant the very section of dizzying detail that so baffled me before. I know that practicing and singing will bring me to a new understanding, which will probably change entirely if I chant it again next year. Turn it around and around, for everything is in it (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15). But you can't dance around your partner while you're trying to leap over his head.

No comments: