When I first met my husband George, he would blast music from Steely Dan every weekend and sing at the top of his lungs while puffing on his cigar. “Hmmm…,” I thought, “He really loves Steely Dan!” And after a while, though not immediately, I found myself singing along at a pretty high decibel. I love George, and the passion he felt for that music made me join along with him.
I can’t say the same about the cigar!
Now, if you ask the clergy for their favorite music, Rabbi Greg would say “U2!” Cantor Michelle would say “Puccini and Verdi,” Rabbi Jessica loves Bruce Springsteen, Jake Harris is classical, Rabbi Elana is classic rock and I’m a toss-up between musical theatre and Carole King. And, of course we all know that Rabbi Dan loves to sing “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis with vibrato… given the opportunity.
This week is Shabbat Shira – the Sabbath of Song. We chant a portion from the Torah called Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea. Using special melodies that depart from the regular Shabbat Torah chanting, we celebrate the dramatic story of our Exodus where the sea parts and we cross to freedom.
We find the words of Mi Chamocha in this portion, words that are a familiar part of our liturgy. These words are powerful and tell of our redemption. “Who is like you, Adonai?” sing the Israelites after crossing the sea. It was not an easy crossing: the sea had to part, we almost didn’t make it and the Egyptians and their horses drowned in that sea. I wonder what melody the Israelites chose for these words.
In planning services, I think so hard when selecting the melodies for our prayers. There are so many and I want to pick the setting that best captures the moment and inspires the congregation.
I know that no matter which one we sing, some will connect and love the melody while others may not resonate to it and may even find it alienating. Adding melody to our text makes it feel personal – and because of our taste in music, our background, our mood that day – it might touch us deeply, and it might not.
So how do we come together and pray if we don’t all agree on the melody? When the Israelites sang Mi Chamocha at the sea, who chose the tune? Was it Miriam? And if it was Miriam, did they join her because they liked the melody, or was it because of her passion for the melody that came from within her? Sometimes I wonder if I like Steely Dan or if I just get caught up in the passion of George’s singing and his connection to the song.
Melody helps us encounter the text personally, but the passion we put into our singing is what’s most contagious. If we find ourselves sitting next to someone chanting the prayers with passion, how can we not sing along? We might find their spirit contagious.
There are times when I choose a melody that perhaps isn’t my personal favorite, but I know many in the congregation connect with it. And in that moment in services, I find myself singing along caught up with passion – even if it might not be my personal first choice for that prayer.
This weekend we are blessed to have Elana Arian join us for Shabbat Shira where she will lead us on Friday night and Saturday morning with many of her melodies and other melodies as well. Elana is a world-renowned composer, multi-instrumentalist performer and leader of worship. I hope you will join us and get caught up with her passion for music and prayer.
When we join together and raise our voices, we truly become a community. We become one – one with each other and with the Holy One.
Cantor Lori Brock