Omer Day 1 – Chesed of Chesed

Music and recording © Alexander Massey 11 March 2015

(Further commentary about this text can be found in another of my articles here: Elohai N’shamah. On that page, you will find more about the symbolism embedded in the musical shapes, and simple symbolic meditative movements to accompany the chant.)

For me, there is a strong link between the theme of first day of counting the omer (Chesed of Chesed), and the prayer Elohai n’shamah, which the Talmud teaches us to say the moment we wake up (Berachot 60b). Linked to this article, there is an audio track of musical setting I composed for it; and I have also suggested two new meditations. Here are the opening words of the prayer:

Elohai n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi.
Atah v’rataH, atah y’tzartaH, atah n’fachtaH bi, v’atah m’shamraH b’kirbi …

“My God, the soul You have given me is pure.
You created it, You formed it, and You made it live within me [breathed it into me]. You watch over / preserve it within me …”

Why should this be the very first thing we do or say? What is so important about these words? And how do they link with Chesed of Chesed? To answer this, we need to take a closer look at the opening line.

Elohai: ‘God’ is the very first word we say. So our first conscious act of the day is to put God into the forefront of our consciousness. God is origin of everything, the essence of everything, and the ultimate destination of everything. Elohai, literally means God of me, or to me. Having both ‘God’ and ‘me’ in this first word establishes our fundamental relatedness to God. In our first moment of awareness, and word of the day, we recognise and affirm that we are bound together with God.

N’shamah is the second word spoken: ‘soul’, or perhaps ‘soul essence’ or even ‘soul-ness’. Where does our soul essence come from? From Elohai.Then the Lord God formed man [adam] of the dust of the ground [adamah], and breathed into his nostrils the breath/soul of life [nishmat chayim]; and man became a living soul [nefesh chayah].” (Gen. 2:7) Soul is our most essential connection to God. God’s breath is our breath. Our soul is made of God’s soul.

Shenatata bi comes next in the prayer – literally, ‘given, by/from You, to me’. Again, we see the intimacy between God and ourselves. ‘You’ (God) and ‘me’. And soul is a gift – t’horah hi – a gift that makes purity our very essence.

Meditation 1 – Beginning again

The implications of this cannot be over-estimated. No matter how far we may stray, and whatever our ‘missings of the mark’, there is something that always connects us to God, and gives us the possibility of being ‘theotropic’, doing t’shuvah and growing back towards God. We can start again, every day, every moment if we have to. Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov, a student of Reb Nachman of Bratslav wrote:

“The Rebbe became accustomed to constantly begin anew. Whenever he fell from his particular level, he did not give up. He would simply say, ‘I will begin anew. I will act as if I am just beginning to devote myself to G-d and this is the very first time.’ This happened time and again, and each time he would start all over again. He would often begin anew many times in a single day.”[1]

It is our God-given soul and purity that enable us to grow back towards God, give us a reason to do so, and real hope that return is possible. That God has given us this so generously is chesed, loving-kindness, in its purest form.

We can now lay out each idea, in the order it comes in the text, to produce a new ritual, a meditation to ponder or recite, with long soul-breaths between each phrase:

“God! … to me! … Soul! … is given! … by You! … to me! Purity is my essential nature.” [And we can add:] “And so, I can begin again.”

It is a kindness, and act of chesed towards ourselves to do this. There is an old Jewish story that likens our God-given soul to a bat melech, a King’s daughter who has been entrusted to our care. In Leviticus Rabbah 34:3, Rabbi Hillel talks of his soul as a guest in his own home to whom he must show kindness. To look after our soul, the life we have been given, is an act of chesed towards ourselves. We reciprocate chesed for chesed, show conscious lovingkindness towards that part of ourselves that is itself the essence of lovingkindness. Knowing we have a soul, we can give ourselves another chance, as many times as it takes.

Meditation 2 – Deep calling to deep

And we can go further. This prayer is a reminder that all humans have a soul, and have this purity and God-essence at their core. We can choose to reaffirm this truth in our mind when we do not feel well disposed toward another person. This finds an echo in the Hindu greeting ‘namaste’. Literally meaning ‘bowing to you’, its larger sense is: ‘the soul in me honours the soul in you’. This is how I interpret the line from Psalm 42:7 t’hom al t’hom korei – “Deep calls to deep”. The soul of God and my soul call to each other, a dynamic to be found between human and the transcendent God, and also between human and the immanent God to be found in the soul of another human. Chesed calls to chesed.

I think of this also as how Jacob eventually sees his brother Esau in their moment of reconciliation. Indeed, it is, perhaps the very means by which Jacob is able to bridge the gap between them: “I see your face as one sees the face of God.” (Gen 33:9) This, too, provides material for a meditation. This can be done alone, either silently or aloud, holding in mind a person with whom we want to make connection or amends. It can also be done as a spoken meditation sitting opposite a partner; with time for silent reflection in between, the partners can take turns to speak the meditation. The periods of silence allow time for contemplation of the subtle meanings and insights that can arise from the meditation practice.

“Deep calls to deep. …. I see your face as the face of God.”

The chant (and round) – Elohai n’shamah

I wrote my setting of Elohai N’shamah as a meditation for myself, and for friends with whom I daven. When chanting Elohai N’shamah, I affirm my God connection, your God connection, and therefore our inherent connectedness. When we define our encounters as soul-to-soul, then we are choosing to recognise the essential goodness that lies at the heart of each other. For me, ‘chesed of chesed’ means to recognise my soul and your soul as pure, and to look at you, and myself, with eyes of love.

[1] Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov, Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom: Shevachay HaRan & Sichos HaRan, translated and annotated by Aryeh Kaplan (1973), Breslov Research Institute, p.8

[This article was first published in 2017 on Ritual Well here.]

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V’asu Li Mikdash and the ‘holiness project’

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 16 Feb 2017: V’asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham.

Recording with English words: “We’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with us.”

Buy the sheet music: $2.25 (approx. £1.80), minimum 4 copies



God is to be found in people, and in community

Biblical Hebrew is a language that can allow for several interpretations of a single word, phrase or sentence. Because of this, I find Biblical text beautiful and endlessly fascinating. We have a blessing for studing Torah which concludes ‘la’asok b’divrei torah‘, meaning ‘to immerse (ourselves) in the words of Torah’: Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches of a pun he learned from Rabbi Max Ticktin, where la’asok (immerse) is translated as ‘soak’. Being both a writer of words and a musician, I love to soak myself in the meanings and sounds of Hebrew and English.

Rabbi Shefa Gold’s translation of Ex. 25:8 (the text for this chant/round) is: “Make for Me a Holy Place so that I may dwell within, among, between them.” Shefa’s wording echoes a teaching from long-held Jewish tradition, that, when a group of us intentionally creates space and time for turning to God, God dwells not in that space, but in us. This is a beautiful reminder to look for God not so much in things or objects, but in people’s actions, in relationships between people, and in people themselves.

I set this text to music (as a two part round) originally in the Hebrew, to be sung for the first time at the bar mitzvah service for my godson Gabriel (the Torah reading for that week being Terumah). Gabriel had prepared an interesting Torah experience for us with our friend Dave. They had built a small structure as a temporary mikdash (sanctuary), so that we as a community could join in a drama enactment. We were to approach the mikdash and offer a word that represented a quality that we wanted to contribute to the community. And the song was to be a prayerful meditation for us all to sing during this process.

God and humanity – meeting each other half way

Dave asked me if I could create an alternative English set of lyrics that we could sing with the music I had written for the Hebrew. For those who were not so at ease with Hebrew, this was intended to help them feel more included and connected to what we were doing; we could alternate Hebrew and English. Dave’s request was a good one. But it can be very difficult to find an English text that ‘works’. I like English song lyrics to be inspiring and poetic, with several alternative meanings if possible; lyrics can then speak to emotion as well as intellect. Otherwise, lyrics can seem somewhat didactic, prosaic, or simplistic/naive.

And then there’s the question of whether to try and create simply a translation that is as close as possible to the Hebrew, or whether to create English words that are more obviously an interpretation or expansion, or even a commentary that adds a different perspective. And whatever the approach, I like the English words to be similar to the musical rhythms that I create for the original Hebrew. That way, the original character of the music is retained, and those singing it can more easily switch from Hebrew to English without tripping up. So, with those thoughts in mind, here are some ideas that I worked through before I reached my final English version.

1. “When you make me a holy place, I live among you.”

This is a fairly close translation, which at the same time offers a universal, spiritual message. (The translation of b’tocham as ‘them’ has been switched to ‘you’.) This lyric emphasises the lived experience we have of the Divine in the process of our making the effort to create holy space and time. And the phrase ‘when you make me a holy place’ can have two meanings:

  • ‘when you (humans) make me (God) into a holy place (ie recognise me-God as hamakom – a God-name meaning ‘the Place’)’
  • ‘when you (humans) put aside a time and a place to focus on and acknowledge me (God)’

I like that possible double meaning, and have aimed to retain it in the next versions.

2. “If you make me a holy place,  I will live among you”

This lyric emphasises a more conditional, transactional relationship: if we make holy space and time, then – and perhaps only then – we will experience God. Well, the Hebrew could mean that, but that was not the sense I wanted to set to music. And such a formulation seems to exclude, or at least neglect, the reality that God, in God’s lovingkindness (chesed), can and does live amongst and within us even when we ignore or reject God. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

3. “When we make You a holy home, You live and love with us.”

(1) and (2), while more literal readings of the Hebrew, require the congregant/singer to become the mouthpiece (‘I’) of God, speaking to humans as ‘you’. I’m uncomfortable with that and it makes me feel detached and ‘dry’. When I pray/sing, I prefer to speak as me, and for the word ‘I’ to refer to me! So this version (3) – switching the pronouns – enables us to pray/sing as ourselves, expressing, I hope, the same essence in the text. And it has the advantange of our being able to use the text/chant to engage with, and address, God directly.

If possible, I like to find some English lyrics that have the same emotional/spiritual feel as the music I have composed. At least in this lyric (3), the language is beginning to feel more poetic and evocative: ‘holy home’ is alliterative (repetition of ‘h’) and assonant (repetition of the sound ‘o’), and ‘live and love’ is more musical with the l’s and v’s. Picking up on Shefa Gold’s lead, b‘tocham has been translated as ‘with us’; this feels more intimate and companionable. I have added ‘love’ as an interpretative addition to deepen the ‘feeling’ connection. However, I am still concerned that, like (1) and (2), this third lyric still feels a little theoretical, didactic and formal. And the lyric comes across as a generalisation, which doesn’t make for intimacy.

4. “We’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with us.”

This fourth version of an English lyric enables us to address God directly, from our own perspective. Perhaps, like the Hebrew, it suggests an event in the future – the arrival of the Shechinah (the in-dwelling presence of God) if we make the effort to make time and space for her. I like the aspirational feel of this version. For me, it chimes with that part of Jewish life that is about both yearning, and intention to make a better world.

The second half of the lyric has a double meaning: God’s in-dwelling might be conditional on our making a holy space, or/and it may happen unconditionally. I think this double meaning is also there in the Hebrew. As human beings, our experience happens in linear time and is dualistic. Such is the challenge of dualism that this lyric (with the use of the future tense – ‘will’) suggests we have not yet created a holy enough space, and that God is not yet in-dwelling. But to say that God is not in-dwelling contradicts the mystical non-dualistic idea that God is eternally and universally present. Put another way, is the Shechinah already here, or must we still work towards helping bring about her arrival? Chant texts – or language generally – cannot easily express dualism and non-dualism simultaneously. Sitting with this lyric, I then realised that ‘You will live with us’ does not necessarily mean that God is not already living with us. So maybe dualism and non-dualism can both be found in this lyric …

My final decision was to go with version 4. Chanting this version repeatedly to my music, I felt there was something poetic in the combination of words and music that expressed what I had been discovering with my head and heart as I ‘soaked’ myself in this verse from Torah. And it had the advantage that it could be sung collectively by a group of people, or with a slight adjustment, become a personal, private prayer: “I’ll make You a holy home, and You will live with me.” For me, with version 4 being adaptable to ‘we’ or ‘I’, this verse and chant has become a way into singing both an experience of sacred community, and an experience of sacred intimacy. We move towards God, and God moves towards us. Or is it the other way around? Who knows? But I do think that this verse is something about meeting each other half way.

The ‘holiness project’

We are told several things about holiness:

  • “You shall be holy (k’doshim); for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2)
  • “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (goi kadosh).” (Ex. 19:6)
  • “Let them build me a holy place (mikdash), and I will dwell within/between/among them.” (Ex. 25:8)
  • “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (l’kadsho).” (Ex. 20:7)
  • [to Moses] “the place on which you stand is holy ground (admat kodesh).” (Ex. 3:5)

So, God is holy; we are to be holy, be a holy nation, and make a holy place for God to live within/between/among us; the earth is made holy by God; and time can be made holy. All of these are part of what I call the ‘holiness project’ that is fundamental to Judaism.

As I sing these words of the chant, I feel both love (ohev) and fear (yirah – ‘awe)’. Yes, I yearn to create holiness in my own home, my marriage, my heart, my friendships, my work, my community – and to create a holy place for God. And the music is there to express the love I have, and feel, and that I want to put into this both as intention and in practical terms.

At the same time, I remember what Heschel [1] wrote: “Words of prayer do not fade. They remain alive in the holy dimension. Words of prayer are commitments. We stand for what we utter.” That is scary. I am struck by the enormity of this ‘holiness project’, and how easy it is to get it wrong, and not live up to its ideals. Sometimes, I would prefer to run away, admit defeat, and declare myself unequal to the challenge. But, in the Ethics of the Ancestors (Pirket Avot 2:16), we are told: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” And, as my beloved rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi (zt”l) often said, “The only way we can get it together is together!” Truly, it cannot be done alone, but must, and can only, be achieved in community, with others.

Because of its text, this chant can be used in a variety of contexts: the opening of any service, perhaps especially at Shabbat (including mincha); community building; the dedication of a synagogue; dedication of a home (chanukat habayit); wedding; with parsat terumah; and as a private reflection. My hope is that singing these words (Hebrew or English) to this music, both in private meditation, and in community, will help strengthen us to make the holiness project real in thought, word and deed.

Notes

[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1954) Man’s Quest for God, copyright Susannah Heschel 1996, p.26

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Ein Keloheinu No. 2

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 23 Oct 2016

  1. There is none like our God: none like our Lord. There is none like our King: none like our Saviour.
  2. Who is like our God: who is like our Lord? Who is like our King: who is like our Saviour?
  3. We will give thanks to our God: we will give thanks to our Lord. We will give thanks to our King: we will give thanks to our Saviour.
  4. Blessed be our God: blessed be our Lord. Blessed be our King: blessed be our Saviour.
  5. You are our God: You are our Lord. You are our King: You are our Saviour.
  6. There is none like our God: none like our Lord. There is none like our King: none like our Saviour.

The text of the Ein Keloheinu prayer appears in the Siddur (prayerbook) of Rav Amram in around 875 CE. In some versions of this prayer, there is a final line that refers to the incense used in Temple services. As in a number of Anglo-Jewish communities, I have dropped that line and re-used the opening line of the prayer, so it comes back full circle to ein keloheinu.

I added the Amein, baruch atah in a bottom voice part because the first three verses begin respectively with aleph, mem and nun, which spells amein, and verses 4 and 5 begin with baruch and atah.  (Taken together, this means ‘So be it – blessed are You!’)

The prayer makes reference to four different names of God (Elohim-God, Adonai-Lord, Melech-King, Moshia-Saviour) in the order they first appear in the Torah (Gen 1:1, Gen 15:2, Ex 15:18, Deut 33:29). This also reflects the four worlds taught in the Jewish mystical system of kabbalah. Four in Hebrew is the letter Dalet, which means ‘door’, and can symbolise a doorway to God. The music of this setting echoes the patterns of four: each musical line is four bars long; the first half of each verse climbs through the four steps of an arpeggio (the four notes of a chord), starting each phrase on the next step (1-3-5-8). The letter yud can also be a shorthand reference to God; it stands for the number ten. Within kabbalah, ten represents the number of sephirot (spheres) on the Tree of Life, and represents ten core aspects of God. To echo this, the rhythmic patterning of each bar of music incorporates 10 quavers (fast rhythmic sub-divisions).

In writing this, I wanted to experiment with sounds evocative of Sephardi Jewish tradition. The rhythms are based on patterns of 3-3-2-2, and the melodic shapes use a 1-2-3-4-5-flat_7-8 scale. I had originally hoped that I could write something that congregations would feel able to sing. However, I think these intricate rhythms (even without singing the round, or adding the bottom part) are a little tricky unless you are used to these kinds of rhythms!

For more information on Ein keloheinu, see Wikipedia.

Possible ways to use this prayer-song

The prayer can be sung as a single, unaccompanied line (if people are musically confident enough!), but it raises the spirits if people can add either the bottom voice (repeating Amein, baruch atah …), and/or sing the main line as a two part round.

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Sh’ma Adonai Koli Ekra (Ps 27:7)

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 25 Sept 2016

Sh’ma Adonai koli ekra; v’choneini va’aneini.

Hear, O Lord, when I call with my voice, and be gracious to me, and answer me.

Zalman Shachter-Shalomi: “Listen, YaH, to the sound of my cry and, being kind, answer me.”

I try to write something new each year for my Jewish Renewal community the London Ruach Chavurah to use at Yom Kippur. This year (2016) it struck me that it would be good to have a meditative chant for crying out to God to hear our prayers.

The language is in the first person singular – ‘I’. And yet as Jews we are encouraged to pray in community, and at High Holy Days especially, we are meant to find support and honesty with each other as we direct our thanks, our apologies and our requests to God. That might suggest that we should have used a text with the plural ‘we’, as we have in, for example, the prayer Sh’ma koleinu (‘Hear our voices’). But when this setting of Ps 27:7 is sung as a round, the resulting harmonies create a strong sense of the community sending out its collective voice – a balance of individual voices and a collective sound. The individual voices make and support the community, and the community supports the individuals.

Possible ways to use this prayer-song
  • The prayer can be sung as a single congregational line or solo (with or without instrumental accompaniment)
  • It can also treated as a round.
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Outline for Shabbat morning davenen

Introduction

This is my own personal take on the sequence of the Shabbat morning service. I have drawn from several siddurim (prayerbooks), from Orthodox, through Jewish Renewal to UK Reform and Liberal. I have included most of the big ‘set pieces’ of what happens in a service, as well as some of the more minor details and sequences. The idea was to try and give both an overview of the journey (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) that we take in the service, as well as emphasising what we could choose as the inner intention or purpose of each moment / movement within the grand design. These ideas are a patchwork created from different commentators (ancient and very recent), as well as my own musings. The elements in green are prayers or texts that we often sing in my Jewish Renewal community, the London Ruach Chavurah.

At the end of this page, there is a short bibliography of some resources that I find enormously useful for a) exploring the purposes, methods and experience of prayer, and b) learning about the structure of the siddur and forms of Jewish worship. Read more ›

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Three Counties United Against Extremism

A service with readings interspersed with silent reflection and music

This was an initiative of the Oxford Foundation, delivered in partnership with the Lord-Lieutenancies of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, Oxford Diocese, and Oxford Muslim College.

This was a beautiful, moving and powerful event that brought together many faiths, humanists, politicians, community workers, victims of extremist violence and young people – a true showing of solidarity for peace, mutual understanding and cooperation.

I was fortunate to be asked as a member of the Jewish community to lead the singing of words from Micah 4:3 – “And everyone neath vine and fig tree shall live in peace and harmony; and into ploughshares beat their swords, nations shall make war no more.”

The event was later reported internationally on ARY News, a Pakistani news station based in Dubai:

The Geologist of the Soul (book by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi)

These are my own gleanings from a beautiful book by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, The Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-craft and Spiritual Leadership (2012, Albion / Andalus, Boulder). I hope they encourage you to buy the book. I have paraphrased in order to clarify my own understanding, but there are also direct quotations from the book. The notes in square brackets are my own thoughts and responses, rather than ideas gleaned from the book itself. Read more ›

A note on prayer

In 1872, Francis Galton wrote a now famous essay entitled ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’1 and concluded that prayer has no effect on either God, or the health or life expectancy of the person prayed for. The essay is full of value propositions and assumptions presented as fact, so I find it hard to take it seriously. Also, Galton’s starting point is Christian conceptions of both prayer, and God’s relationship to creation and humanity. The etymology of ‘prayer’ (preces) leans heavily on the idea of petition and, by implication, the potential for magical thinking and questions of whether those who pray can turn the mind of God.

I realise that there are Jews throughout history who have pursued the same line. However, there is a counter-thread in Judaism also, that regards this as largely irrelevant. T’fillah might be considered more as a process of self-reflection and personal development, as well as a means for both awakening our higher ethical sensibilities, and nurturing and developing our relationship with God.

On a more personal note, it is one of the areas of Jewish (spiritual) life in which I am especially interested. Even if there is no paradigm shift (sadly) away from naive magical thinking about prayer as humans attempting (or managing) to influence God, perhaps we can hope for at least a ‘software upgrade’ on the language and practices of our prayer so that it can speak better to the contemporary mind and heart. I am not suggesting a clinical, scientifically rigorous language, nor double-blind tested prayer practices. Prayer is (or at least, should be) multi-sensory, includes emotional and emotive elements, admits paradox and poetry, questions, doubts and hopes, despair, anger, and thanks and wonder. I make no definitive claims about the purposes or results of prayer, but my life would be poorer without it, and I suspect communal life would be too.

Notes

[1] Galton, Francis (1872) ‘Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer’, Fortnightly Review, vol. 12, pp. 125-35

Alexander on BBC Radio Oxford

13 March 2016, approx. 8.20am – Live – short interview and performing Yotzeir Or with Charles Nove on his Sunday morning programme “Music and conversation from the spiritual side of life“.

Adon Olam No.2

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 10 Feb 2015

For commentary about the text and symbolism of Adon Olam, click here.

 

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