Kol B’Ramah, Kol D’mei

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 11 April 2018

Jer. 31:15; Gen. 4:10; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

On Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah, we commemorate both the victims of the Holocaust, and those who heroically resisted. This piece was written to honour those people. The three Jewish texts offer a space to reflect on the preciousness of human life, and our personal and collective responsibility to protect it. The piece begins with the voice of a mother weeping for her dead children. In the second text, the voice of God asks, ‘What have you done?’; and the voice of each one of those who have died cries out to all of us. The Talmudic Rabbis noted that in Gen. 4:10 the Hebrew uses the plural – ‘bloods’. The Rabbis warned that killing one person kills off the possibility of countless descendants, a ‘whole world’.

The music draws on the nusach of Musaf at Yom Kippur, the service that includes the honouring of Jewish martyrsBeginning with wailing and jarring dissonance, the music gradually transforms to gentler melodic shapes and harmonies. This echoes the sequence of texts that takes us from death, loss and desolation, through awakening conscience and responsibility, to dedication to life, and therefore hope.

The first verse begins with the word kol (quf-vav-lamed) – a single voice crying out. The second verse begins with the same word, but this time kol represents a voice echoing down through the generations; in the third verse (and fourth verse), the opening word sounds the same (being a homophone) – kol– but this time, it is spelt kaf-lamed, meaning anyone, and therefore, everyone. So, the song begins with a single voice crying out, and ends with an invitation for each one of us to consider our response.

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Lo Yisa Goi (No.2) – Nation Shall Not Raise Sword

Music and Audio © Alexander Massey 28 January 2017

Instrumental version (easier to hear the individual parts)

This three part round is written in 2 languages (Hebrew and English) and 3 different time signatures (4/4, 6/8 and 3/4), each line being pitted against the other two. Although this might seem a formula for chaos – just as war is – in fact, the lines end up in rhythmic step with each other. And the piece ends with all three parts singing, in unison, ‘War no more!’. This piece takes confidence, independence, keen listening, cooperation, practice and perseverance to master. But then, so does peace.

Lo yisa goi el goi cherev, v’lo yilm’du od milchamah.

“Nation shall not raise sword against nation,
And they shall not learn war any more.” (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4) Read more ›

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Nir’eh Or – In Your light, we see light

Psalm 36: 8-10 – Music and audio © Alexander Massey 16 Sept 2018

Music, English lyrics & audio © Alexander Massey 16 Sept 2018

Enjoy listening! Fuller commentary / essay coming soon – in the meantime, here are some brief thoughts:

I wrote this as a companion piece for B’ruchah Haba’ah (‘Blessed is She’), the song for the blessing of a baby girl. Nir’eh Or (‘In Your Light, We See Light’) can be sung at the blessing of a baby of any gender, can also be used for a bar or bat mitzvah, and can fit in well at a wedding.

O, how dear is Your kindness, O God;
         all Your children find shelter in the shadow of Your wings.
You nurture them with the nectar of Your house;
         You give them drink from Your river, for the pleasure that it brings.
For with You is the fountain of life;
         and in Your light, we see light. Read more ›

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Han’shamah Lach – a new musical setting

Music and Audio © Alexander Massey 13 Sept 2018

Enjoy listening! Fuller commentary / essay coming soon – in the meantime, here are some brief details about the prayer:

  • The prayer is usually associated with High Holy Days. Yamim Noraim, and is sung at Selichot, and also Kol Nidrei. The verses used in this setting are part of a longer prayer. Often just these two verses (or even the first verse) are used.
  • The machzor (High Holy Days prayerbook) of UK Judaism cites this source: Machzor Oholei Ya’akov, ed. R. Ya’akov ibn Yitzchaki, vol II (Jerusalem 1910), p.37. Idelsohn attributes the poem to Abraham Ibn Ezra.

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Kumi Lach Rayati

In Hebrew

In English – ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one’

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 9 Dec 2015

This recording and a version of this article were published on Ritual Well (USA) as ‘Arise, my love‘.

English duet version (a recording with women’s voices is coming soon!)

Hebrew duet version (a recording with women’s voices is coming soon!)

I wrote this song in the same week that I wrote Libavtini achoti chalah. Both songs draw on verses and phrases from Song of Songs. The purpose for writing was very clear. Two friends of mine, Ella and Natasha, were getting married, and I wanted to offer them music for their wedding based on traditional Biblical text. The challenge was that there was, of course, no explicit Biblical narrative of a same-sex marriage.

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Halleluyah No. 2 (Psalm 150)

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey, October 2011

Psalm 150 not only completes Book 5 of the Psalms (tehillim), but is the last of all the Psalms. As such, its message is particularly important as a summation – a vision – of what our central intention should be in prayer and liturgical song. The Psalms cover a huge range of human experience and emotion, including anger, pain, doubt, sorrow, yearning, hope, pleading, revenge, wonder, as well as – of course – praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 150 focuses on hallel ‘praise’, a word used many times in this text. It is recited as part of daily morning prayer in the psukei d’zimra (verses of song), and in the musaf amidah (standing prayer in the late morning service) at Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year); and v3, mentioning the shofar (ram’s horn) is found in the repetition of the morning amidah at Rosh Hashanah.

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V’shavti B’veit Adonai (Ps 23:6)

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 21 Sept 2015

Ach, tov vachesed yird’funi kol y’mei chayai; v’shavti b’veit Adonai l’orech yamim.

Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever [lit. for length of days].

One of the most spiritually charged seasons in the Jewish liturgical year is High Holy Days, including the penitential month of Elul, the new year celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Over the 24 hour fast of Yom Kippur there are six services, and perhaps the most intense of these is Yizkor, the service of remembrance for  those who have died. The prayers and readings sear the heart, and provide expression for our grief, and an opportunity to explore our thoughts and feelings about death.

In the Reform UK prayerbook, the service ends with a poignant sequence in which each person speaks the names of their departed loved ones into the silence of the listening congregation. This is followed by a solo prayer leader singing the El male rachamim prayer for the souls of the departed to be held in the sheltering embrace of God; then everyone says the Kaddish, a prayer recited for centuries by mourners to affirm life and the goodness of God. It is a powerful moment. The Reform UK prayerbook completes the service with Psalm 23, words that compare God to a shepherd who offers safety to his flock through both strong boundaries, and deep compassion. Read more ›

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Shalom Aleichem, Aleichem Shalom

Composition and Audio © Alexander Massey, 26 March 2017

First performance 10 May 2017 – United for Peace – United Through Poetry – a service with readings interspersed with silent reflection and music, delivered in partnership with the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham.

Peace to you, to you, peace

Shalom – I wanted to begin what I have to say today with this greeting. Shalom – ‘Peace’. And I‘d like to share with you something from Jewish tradition what shalom means. It’s more than just the end or absence of war. It’s an attitude that we can adopt, a way of being, in the presence of conflict. The word shalom is connected to shleimut, meaning completeness or wholeness. Do we ever reach such a place? Perhaps not. But it makes a difference to aspire to such a state, and to take what action we can, that may take us closer to shalom. I like to think that the time we are given in this life can be dedicated to a continuous process of ‘shalom-ing’ as much as we can. But how should we set about this ‘shalom-ing’ as I have called it?

There’s a clue in a beautiful teaching about how the word shalom is spelled. Its first letter shin, represents aish – ‘fire’. Its final letter mem represents mayim – ‘water’. We find sh and mm again in the word SH-e-M meaning ‘name’, which we use as one of the names for God. And we find the same combination in the word SH-amayi-M, which means ‘heaven’. We experience peace and heaven on Earth when sh and mm, fire and water, are brought together and reconciled. Shalom is all about being prepared to embrace contradiction, engage with the seemingly impossible, and bring opposites into harmonious relationship.

What is clapping?

One of our Jewish mystics, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that when we are happy, we clap our hands. And he taught us that something very profound happens in that moment. You see, normally, my right hand likes just to get on with its business, and says to the other one: “You’re just a crazy lefty!” And my left hand likes to do its own thing, and says, “Agh – you always think you’re right!” So they don’t always get on too well. But, when they’re happy, of course, they naturally want to clap. And so the opposites come together, and they realize how important they are to each other. And the right says to the left, “Shalom aleichem”, and the left replies, “Aleichem shalom”. And then all that remains is the music, and the dance.

Omer Day 7 – Malchut of Chesed

Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 20 May 2014

Many years ago, someone commented to me that I didn’t always say ‘thank you’ when it might have been appropriate. I was shocked, and embarrassed. I was convinced I was grateful. But, for some reason, I didn’t necessarily voice or show my gratitude. And that, understandably, didn’t go down well. Over the years, I have tried to be more aware, and to do something about this. And it’s made a difference, not just to others, but also to me. I think – at least, I hope – I have become more grateful, and more aware and respectful of the positive difference that other people make to my life. And I am grateful to that person who all those years ago switched me on to this.

How does this idea of gratitude fit with day 7 of counting the omer, and the quality of malchut in chesed (sovereignty in lovingkindness)? This article presents 5 thankfulness practices (including a chant) in response to that question.

Shefa, the abundant flow of life and goodness from God, is a core concept in kabbalah. Also known as Or, ‘light’, shefa is poured into Creation, represented by the ten sefirot on the ‘Tree of Life’, so that everything is animated and sustained by it. This flow of creation, life and sustenance is God’s chesed visibly in action. This shefa/or arrives eventually in malchut (‘kingdom’), the world that we experience. The world, malchut, recipient of that ‘flow/light’, is God’s ‘throne’. Malchut is the aspect of the Divine that is most immanent, immediate and present, the Shechinah, the Divine presence revealed to us. The world around us and the life within us, are the grounded, manifest lovingkindness of God – malchut of chesed.

Our life is not something we receive from God through any kind of ‘entitlement’. It is a blessing, a gift that is neither deserved nor undeserved. That is reason enough to be thankful. But, if, as I have learned, simply feeling or thinking thankfulness may not be enough, what else can we do?

Thankfulness Practice 1 – Thank God: Modeh ani

Thank God! It’s easy to forget. But I have found, to my delight, that, with practice, it can become easy to remember. As Jews, Yehudi, our very name comes from the same Hebrew root as todah, ‘thanksgiving’ – we are, literally, ‘the people who give thanks’. The Rabbis prized gratitude so highly that they taught: “In the future all sacrifices will be abolished, except for the thanksgiving-offering. And all prayers will be abolished, except for prayers of gratitude.” (Lev. Rabbah 9:7)

As an alternative to saying Elohai N’shamah prayer when we wake up (see my article on day 1 of the omer), we are taught to recite the prayer Modeh ani. The word modeh comes from the same root as yehudi and todah, and means ‘thanks’. So we are the people who say, with our first waking breath: “I thank You, living and eternal Spirit, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.” I composed my own musical setting of Modeh ani as a way of anchoring the prayer in my own heart and mind. (The audio track, sheet music, and further commentary about this text can be found at http://alexandermassey.com/modeh-ani/ )

The Babylonian Talmud (Gen. Rabbah 14) interprets Ps 150:6 ‘Let all souls praise God’ as “For every breath which a person takes they must give praise to the Holy One.” While we usually think of Modeh Ani as being just a morning prayer, the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:1, 29b) suggests that we can cultivate gratitude throughout our day. Nowadays, when I feel a moment of delight, I find myself consciously saying a private ‘thank you’ to God, silently when in company, and out loud when I am by myself. Chesed is my open-heartedness towards God; the malchut aspect of that is to activate my thanks by actually saying it.

Thankfulness Practice 2 – Make blessings and count blessings

The Rabbis extrapolate from Deut. 10:12 (‘What does God require of you?’) that we should recite 100 blessings a day (Menachot 43b). These are said mostly at set times for prayer, and at meal times. But there is a deeper teaching here, that we can choose to cultivate a mindset of constant gratitude, and actively notice things that we can be grateful for. “Who is rich?”, the Rabbis asked. “Those who rejoice in their own lot.” (Avot 4:1) Another way of saying this is ‘count your blessings’. And that is not just an idea, but can be an exercise. What if we were to sit down for 10 minutes, and write down everything for which we could be grateful? And what if we were to extend that for a second 10 minutes, and keep writing? And it might stretch our gratitude muscles and give them a good workout if we continued to the end of 30 minutes, and kept listing what we were grateful for. This is recognising the grounded reality – malchut – of God’s chesed lovingkindness.

Thankfulness Practice 3 – Thank people

Thanking a person may or may not make an impact on them. But I am not sure that we necessarily thank a person in order to have an effect on them anyway. Thanking is unconditional. We say thank you simply because it is a good thing to do. The etymology of the word ‘thank’ gives us a clue to what we are doing: we are effectively saying, ‘I will think of you’. To thank is to affirm a bond of goodness between ourselves and our benefactor, and to hold that in our thoughts.

There is also a deeper layer at work here. In my day 1 article (Chesed of Chesed), I wrote about seeing another’s face as the face of God. When we thank another person, we also thank God, that force within them that enables them to give to us. God’s indwelling presence malchut/Shechinah is present in the other person’s kindness (chesed).

Thankfulness Practice 4 – Make a good day

I have found that thanking God, making and counting blessings, and thanking people have all made a difference to how I experience life. It has helped me stay hopeful, and helped pull me out of the times when I have been down. I think, over time, it has also helped me make some kind of positive contribution to others. Life is not always easy. Sometimes my steps are very faltering. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: “Every hour of the day, see that you extend and enrich that hour by filling it with extra holiness. Do the same every day of your life. Let each day be filled with more holiness than the day before.” (Likutey Moharan I, 60)

What can we do in the world of malchut with the life we have been gifted through God’s chesed? Rabbi Ady Assabi (1947-2003), in the siddur he developed in South Africa, wrote the beautiful prayer: “May I make this new day a special day. May I overcome my weaknesses and radiate around me the light of love, care and joy. May my desire for success and attainment not blind me to the needs and wants of others, especially those I love and those who depend on me. May I be able to make during this day, some real time for myself and my family, and some meaningful space for You. Help me to remember throughout the day, that my time is like a scroll; I need only write on it what I want to remember, lest I run out of parchment.”

Rabbi Assaby’s friend, my father-in-law Izzy Wainer (z’l), was renowned for transforming a particular, formulaic, throwaway line into an inspiring one. When he heard someone say, ‘Have a good day’ he would always catch the person off guard and raise a smile with the reply, ‘Make a good day!’. And he walked his talk; despite having to grapple with some big challenges, he managed to ‘always look on the bright side of life’. Malchut in chesed is about bringing more good into the world. I am so grateful for Izzy’s lesson. And having received that gift, I find myself passing in on to others.

Thankfulness Practice 5 – Pay it forward

And this brings us to the fifth thankfulness practice. If we are to ‘fill every hour with extra holiness’ and ‘make a good day’, what might that look like?

There is a curious moment in the Torah, right in the middle of the chapter detailing the laws relating to all the major festivals, including our current season, Pesach. There is a single, isolated verse that draws attention to looking after the needs of the poor (Lev. 23:22): “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance up to the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” It is a timely reminder, that, when we are on a high, celebrating the festivals and our good fortune, abundance must be shared.

What should we do with the shefa/or ‘flow/light’ that we receive from God? We are taught that we are to be or goyim, a ‘light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6). Abraham was told by God: “And I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Gen 12:2) What does it mean to be a blessing? What does that look like? We need to make sure that chesed continues to flow. The bounty that we receive – in whatever form – must be shared, or it will begin to turn sour, and diminish us. Lily Hardy Hammond wrote: “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” (1916, In the Garden of Delight, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, p.209[1]).

God is the source of all chesed, but we can channel that chesed in malchut. Through us, lovingkindness can become tangible. As Rami Shapiro says, we are “the way God writes symphonies and bad checks, … the way God cries over newborns and last breaths, … the way God is God”[2] in the world. Malchut in chesed means that I am master of my own expression of chesed. One powerful way to thank God for what we receive is to ‘pay it forward’, to offer goodness in whatever form we can.

So, we receive from God the flow of life and goodness. Thank God (modeh ani)! Make and count blessings. Thank people. Make a good day. And pay it forward. By doing all these things, we keep the flow going, and send it full circle back to God.

Thank you for reading!


[1] ‘Pay It Forward’ is also the title and concept for a 2000 film, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment

[2] Shapiro, Rami (2006) Ethics of the Sages: annotated and explained, Skylight Paths, Woodstock, p.36

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You have all been shown what is good

Music and recording © Alexander Massey 19 May 2016

“You have all been shown what is good, and what God seeks from you.
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

[See the Hebrew original, and other translations, at the end of this article]

I love this text. ‘Do justice’ – Yes, do the right thing, make the world fairer. ‘Love kindness’ – this is an important counterbalance. Justice can sometimes be over-exacting, too severe, and lack compassion. Together, justice and kindness make a healthy and wise combination. ‘Walk humbly’ – when we walk, we are not ‘spineless’, but hold our head up with confidence, and we balance this with being humble and avoiding self-importance. ‘With your God’ – staying close to God, and nourishing that relationship, and our God-awareness are crucial to the good life. The chant includes the first half of the verse as well; this expresses our agathotropic nature (inclination to seek and grow toward goodness), and God’s invitation, command, and fervent hope that we do so. This verse from Micah is universal in its humanity. It is a sentiment that can transcend Judaism, and be meaningful amongst any group of people, whether they have a faith tradition or none. Read more ›

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