Meditative music must begin from silence. We must be prepared to enter silence first, because that is the most fertile space for beginning prayer. When I had my hand-woven tallit (prayer shawl) made, its maker Amy Smith (of www.bluefeetstudio.com), asked me what text I wanted on the atara (the sewn on strip that goes around the neck part of the tallit). After much reflection, I asked for an aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet). Here is why.
There is a midrash (story) of the revelation at Sinai (when God gave Moses and the Israelites the Torah). Some say that the people heard only the first two commandments directly, the first beginning ‘I am the Lord your God ….’ and the second beginning ‘You shall not make a graven image of me …’. Others say the people heard only the first word, anokhi (meaning ‘I’). And then, wonderfully, there is another teaching (from Rabbi Mendl Torum of Rymanov) that says that they heard only the first letter, the aleph, which, of course, is silent. Lawrence Kushner, in ‘The Book of Miracles’, wrote his own version of what Rabbi Mendl said: “Aleph makes a tiny, little sound that is the beginning of every sound. Stop! That is the aleph. God made the voice of aleph so quiet that if you made any other noise you wouldn’t be able to hear it.” What better preparation for prayer, davennen, or donning the tallit, than that moment of turning inwards to listen for what the poet Kabir called the ‘breath within the breath’, and what I call the ‘voice within the voice’. So the single letter aleph on the atara, for me, says it all, and is in tune with what I believe is at the heart of my work as a musician, as a davenner (one who prays) and singer of ritual music, and teacher – to listen for revelation, for truth, by leaning into the Great Silence.
There is a lovely Zen story where a prospective student asks a Master to teach him. The Master, who is drinking tea at the time, takes an empty cup and starts to pour tea into it; soon the cup is full and starts to overflow, and the Master continues to pour. The student is baffled and asks the Master what it he is doing. The Master replies that because the student’s mind is already so full of his own notions and busy thoughts, there is no room to fit anything more in, and therefore the Master cannot teach him.
This Ma’ariv nigun requires us first to sit, and breathe, to empty ourselves, and make space. The opening phrases leave moments of silence, and these are some of the most important components of the piece. What happens in the silence affects the sounds we make. And the sounds we make affect the shape and texture of the silence that follows. The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Brachot 32b) In our silence and breathing, we turn to God. In our song, we tune to God. This is not singing, but praying – avodat lev (or avodah shebalev), ‘service/work of the heart’. Letting the music come through our bodies, whether we listen, sing or play, shifts us into the world of yetzirah and feeling (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Davenning: a guide to meaningful Jewish prayer, 2012 – read my blog notes); Reb Zalman suggests that every nigun should be a song of ascension (shir hama’alot) to God. Singing this way tunes us not only to God, but also to the companions we are praying with (and to ‘that of God’ within them).
The melody is based on the Ahavah rabbah (freygish) mode that we might expect to hear in an evening service. Like Indian raga (scales), different scales and motifs are associated with different modes, and times of day. This music takes us into the night, where we surrender to the Unconscious, and processes that we cannot know, but that change us. With prayer, and with music, we can shape our intention, and choose the path we take into that realm. In 2 Kings 3:15, we learn that “as soon as the musician began to play, the hand of the Lord came upon him [Elisha].” This has been taken to mean that music provided the means by which Elisha opened to receive insight. The famous 18th century chassid (holy man) Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid [holy storyteller] of Mezritch, explained that this means that when the musician (ham’nagein) becomes like the instrument (k’nagen), then the spirit of God will rest upon him.
It is not the quality of our voice or musicianship that counts, but the quality of our intention (kavanah).