I helped lead Shabbat services this past Friday evening, first time in over a year. (I think this was my 20th, in total. I may have lost count.) Times sure does fly. I've missed leading, but we now have a whole bunch of interns who help, as they should. I've long gotten over thinking I wasn't called because I didn't do a good enough job... well, mostly gotten over. So it was very nice to be asked, and trusted so much that the cantor almost forget to tell me at which service he wanted me.
I didn't realized until Friday how much I've learned, and changed, since November, 2007. A year of Biblical Hebrew has given me greater understanding of grammar; I can now sing with the knowledge of how words fit into sentence structure. Even without complete, literal understanding of their meaning, this makes a big difference in phrasing. All the reading and writing I had to do in class has helped the liturgy trip more easily off my tongue, although I already knew it by heart. And I've become more at ease with my discovery, during Yom Kippur Minha in 2007 (thanks to a combination of physical exhaustion, hunger-fueled breathing, and--something else) that sound need not be arduous to produce. I think I'm also more comfortable in general about standing in front of the community, and accepting that my presence at the bima isn't a complete fluke of nature.
I was nervous at first, but knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. A few times I lost sense of myself, like I was singing while floating in an ocean of the people in the peripheral vision right over my siddur. Their energy felt like a pile of pillows, safe, comfortable, gentle, strong, absorbing my prayer into a wide, slow current. I think, also, that my heart is still mending from recent sadness, and my sound on Friday was a question to God--a little defiant--rather than a statement. I didn't do a perfect job. I made a few mistakes, was ragged at the beginning, came in haltingly once or twice. But I don't think it mattered.
I also renewed my enormous respect for rabbinical students who do this without benefit of years of listening to my congregation pray. I had forgotten about all the improvisation at the bima--alternating the leading of verses, except when you don't; expecting a certain tune, and hearing a different one; and, most interestingly, singing in a comfortable key, except when the guitarist assumes the rabbi, a tenor, will sing a certain line (because he always does) and so plays the intro in his much higher key. And then understanding that the rabbi, as he steps almost imperceptibly away from the bima, is generously inviting YOU to sing that line, way up in the highest reaches of the stratosphere. I remembered that the cantor thought I was a soprano, and prayed that believing would make it so. I climbed as gently as possible, hoping the matriarchs would forgive me for sort of hiccuping through their names, reached the summit ("hagibor," "the mighty"), and landed gently.
And then I wanted to do it again, but the service was over.