For most of my rabbinate, 33 years now, God save the mark! I, as rabbi, was the one who led services, so often, that I often felt totally unmoved throughout, but had become a mere “davening machine,” mouthing words whose meaning I did not feel, to which my soul did not resonate. My only saving grace, from earliest days, was giving interpretations of the poetry and holding impromptu discussions in the midst of the service. If I had an unmoved heart, I could stimulate my mind, and stimulate those of others. This was, for the most part, successful.
In my current congregation, we are blessed with laypeople who can daven, plus a fulltime cantor, and so I am relegated to being “page announcer,” and even that, not too often. There is no pleasing me, however, and that is why, with the cantor on vacation, I was happy to lead services today, as well as chant Torah (I always chant Torah).
Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, many years ago, I sat for hours listening to elders lead services: some were gifted singers, but some had voices that would have made a bullfrog blush. When, from the age of thirteen, I entered Yeshiva University High School for Boys-Manhattan, I was fortunate to enter their Cantorial Training Institute, taking a special class taught by an energetic, dedicated young cantor (he is now dean of the school), Bernard Beer. He painstakingly taught us to sing the Shachareet shel Shabbat, the Shabbat Morning Service. Over the years, I have shared his knowledge with innumerable young b’nai mitzvah students.
Growing up as a budding shliach tsibur (lit., “messenger of the congregation,” or prayer leader), the problem I discovered was the old Orthodox minhag (custom) that those who are observing yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of the death of a close relative) get first dibs on leading services. Attending Shabbos services was a crushing bore for me, a never-ending mumbling of Hebrew polysyllables, with sporadic cries to a mysterious, bearded, Eastern European God who cared little about the life or fortunes of a young American Jewish boy more interested in Mad Magazine, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Broadway musicals, poetry, and, eventually, Jewish girls.
The only saving grace would have been the rabbi’s allowing me to conduct services, but my further “misfortune” was, ironically, that my parents were (thank God, at the time) both alive. Instead of encouraging us youngsters to lead services, the rabbi, always with an eye on possible donors and donations, had an ongoing roster of yahrzeit-observers, sturdy daveners and true, but nary a decent singer among them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I became a rabbi: to assure myself of always having a congregation for whom to lead services.
In my current congregation, we customarily make a meeshehbayrach (blessing over the Torah) for the cholim, the ill of our congregation, as well as friends and family, Jewish and gentile both, following the sixth aliyah (Torah honor)—I don’t know why, even though the number six is not the luckiest in Judaism, it being one shy of the number of menorah-branches, or arm-windings of tefillin. We go around the sanctuary (it is crowded, since we daven in the chapel during summer, with all the snowbirds gone; it is comfy and haimish, homey), and invite folks to call out the names of those who need a blessing. After each name, Jewish or gentile, we say, “Refuah sh’laymah—[May there be a] complete and speedy recovery.” We sing the meeshehbayrach; there is a tune. Today, however, I felt differently about it.
When making a meeshehbayrach, or any prayer involving the Torah, I grip the Torah handles. Whenever anyone comes up for an aliyah, I direct them to hold the handles, or at least one of them. This is in fulfillment of the verse, “And all of you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive this day” (Deut. 4:4). If a couple comes up to share the aliyah, I ask them to grip the handles, together; it is poignant, I believe, to watch older couples, who have held hands together through so much of their lives, cover one another’s hands, while gripping the old, smooth wooden handles of the Torah. This is the way it ought to be, for Jews: we hold on to the Torah; the Torah holds on to us.
Today, as I said, it was different. I emphasize that I am not one of those who believes in the intrinsic holiness of an object; we are the ones who bring the holiness to it—if we daven before the curtain of the Holy Ark, if we kiss the Torah as it is carried ‘round, we are the holiness-bringers. In this instance, as I gripped the Torah-handles and chanted the ancient words of the Healing Prayer, asking God, as the Divine Physician, to send blessings and cure to those of His creatures in need, I felt a distinct power flowing into me from the Torah. It was not real, not actual, not a lightning-rod feeling, but it was there. It is very similar to what William Butler Yeats, that Irish mystic, describes in his poem:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
--“Vacillation,” Sec. 4
What Yeats is attempting in this short excerpt is clear to me: the book represents the limits of our knowledge, both real and spiritual. The cup is sustenance, whether of ordinary drink or alcohol (neither is scorned in our tradition). The “marble table-top” reminds me of the sacred altar, and teaches us that any surface where learning has taken place is holy. The Blakean visitation of Holiness which follows in the second stanza teaches what we must be always ready and prepared for: we never know when it will arrive: one must have a heart like a wind-chime, always alert to such sacred moments.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to pray; better still, to be able to conduct services, to teach people, and to feel God in such spindrift, eyeblink occurrences. May we all merit such times of blessing. Amen!