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Parashat Haazinu 5777: Sing a new song

Haazinu is a Parashah that speaks mostly about music, as most of it is a song. A song with a special function, reminding Israel of its covenant and warning about the consequences of breaking the covenant. However, as any song, the idea is to take the message to the heart, appeal to the emotion and touch the soul of the listener. Professor Arnold Eisen is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the most important Masorti/Conservative Rabbinical School in the World. Being the Chancellor of the JTS is like being de facto the intellectual leader of our Movement in the World. Some time ago I read an article he wrote about music and I want to share with you some of his ideas. He wrote about the CEO of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who made controversial declarations, saying that the World of the classic music needs to be less formal. That the people coming to concerts should clap their hands, laugh more, yell a little and maybe dress less fancy. He believed that this might renew the concert World and maybe attract more people to them. Professor Eisen saw some similarity between this description of the Classical music scene and the World of the Synagogue, no matter which denomination. The raised bimah, formal dress code and the music we use sometimes might be a barrier between most people and our services. Especially in the time of the High Holidays, that we just finished, when thousands of Jews spend a lot of time in Synagogues, we should ask ourselves how we want our synagogues to look like, how our services should sound like. There are two good reasons to ask ourselves these questions: First, we have a hard time making the experience of prayer attractive and relevant for our people. The common challenge of most Shuls, everywhere in the World, is to engage the younger generations and maybe we should rethink how to speak to them. Without a doubt, successful communities everywhere developed services more interactive, where the congregation is not passive, where some of the traditional melodies were changed to new ones that speak to the younger people. A service where the responsibility is divided between everyone, with many people participating actively, is much more attractive today than a service that looks like a concert. A second reason is that prayer was never meant to be a passive activity and its nature is quite the opposite. Prayer is the experience of standing in front of God, however we understand Him or Her, and communicate with this Higher Power. It was never a simple task and the Jewish Library is full of rabbis and philosophers who dealt and struggled with the subject of prayer for generations, so it’s not strange that we in our day struggle with this. To pray in Hebrew is lehitpalel, it’s a reflexive verb, directed to ourselves. It is not easy to stand in front of ourselves and reveal and engage with the deepest side of our soul, to ask ourselves hard questions and try to answer them. We think about the meaning of our lives and the wisdom of our tradition. This process can be inspiring, can be scary and probably both at the same time. Prayer is supposed to move us inside and that’s the reason some people move also their bodies when praying, like expressing externally what is going on inside them. To move, to bow, to dance or walking around the Shul, movement can be a strong expression of our prayer, so we shouldn’t avoid it. Sometimes to avoid talking, making noise, moving too much and more, that we believe should be part of the code of behavior in Shul, actually limit our capability to really pray! The liturgy says many times Shiru Shir Chadash, sing a new song. Let’s sing our personal song! If we need to cry, to raise our voices, to laugh, to be despaired, or to clap our hands, let’s do this. If silence is what we need, so that’s also fine. The important thing is to give ourselves to the experience of prayer, to be present and active, not mere spectators. Even to lose ourselves a little in the flow of this holy moment. Let’s be clear, gossip and small talk have no place in Shul. It’s not about turning Shul into a market, but to let ourselves express our feelings and how prayer touches us. In my experience, my prayer is empowered when I hear others praying aloud sentences that speak to them or humming a nigun, a melody that helps them pray. Even more, according to Professor Eisen, what we know as the code of behavior in Shul we actually inherited it from the Lutheran Church, when we wanted to be accepted in the German society of the 19th Century. The Shul of old times was a very noisy place, with a lot of yelling and personal expressions. The modern Shul is a place of formality and seriousness, as a theater or a Museum. The balance between silence and noise, to be passive and active, like all balances is hard to achieve. And like many other things, I believe the secret is to listen to our heart, to let ourselves be taken by the experience of prayer, to create together real ruach, a real spirit, to strengthen each other with songs and our feelings and together, as a community, to raise a new song to the Holy One of Israel.

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