Mah Gadlu (Ps 92)
Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 25 March 2012
“How great are your works, God! Your thoughts are very deep.”
The morning service includes Psalm 92 Tov l’hodot (‘It is a good thing to give thanks to God’). We begin the day by giving thanks, acknowledging the wonder of Creation, and the gift of our own life. Wonder, or ‘radical amazement’ as A J Heschel called it, are core to our relationship with God.
I think of verse 6 of the psalm as wrapping together all the four kabbalistic levels. The ‘spirit’ and ‘thoughts’ of God (the levels of atzilut and beriah) are experienced in the physical ‘works’ (level of assiyah) – the world we can see; we make this connection through our direct, emotional ‘You’ connection with God (the level of yetzirah).
Developing kavannah, single-focused attention directed towards God, is integral to prayer, both in method and purpose. Singing this Mah gadlu chant many times in a single sitting provides an opportunity to develop such a focus. Chanting meditatively alone has its own special power. Singing – praying – with others gives a different, equally important dimension to prayer; we are, after all, taught to pray together, in community. Making a particular prayer, or sung prayer or chant, a repeated feature of our services, adds depth to our experience of it – it is never the same twice. Each repetition can bring a new perspective.
- The chords in the third section are different from the first two sections. If one instrument accompanies all the singers, this chord change works. If each of the three singers’ parts has its own instrumental accompaniment, the chords between the parts would clash, so each instrument would need to cycle through just: Gm-Dm-Gm-Dm-Eb-F-Gm-Dm-(Gm)
- Finding the right pace for this chant (and how to breathe it) takes practice. Taken too fast, it fails to feel spacious or express the grandeur of the vision. Taken too slowly, and the waves of the phrases lose their momentum.
- When done as a round, each singer must listen to the ebb and flow of the other parts, and sense when to lift or lower their volume. This is an ensemble piece where the community of singers must think and feel it together, so that the parts do not compete, but rather support each other.
- Allow enough time for this chant to sink deeply into body, breath, mind and heart. What is enough time? There is only one way to find out!