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The Time of Receiving

 Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein

Every once in a while someone asks me, "Cantor, what exactly is Jewish music?" It's an innocent, obvious question. Deceptively simple. In fact, it was the first question asked at our first Cantorial class in Jerusalem. Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer didn't give us an answer. He said the problem was "extremely complicated" and proceeded to lecture tirelessly on Jewish music for the next eight months. The class ended the following spring. By then, my classmates and I felt we had a clearer understanding of the history, use and development of Jewish music - but we still didn't know how to define it.

How does one define what is ephemeral? Music, unlike other arts, is created and then destroyed. There is sound and then silence. Therein lies its power and its mystery. Symphony orchestras play classic masterpieces like Beethoven's Ninth season after season, but each performance is unique. The same piece is never performed or heard the same way. Similarly, we sing the Kol Nidre year after year. Each autumn the ancient melody is new. It isnít really the same prayer. It is not the same for us and it is not the same for our congregants. What we hear is determined by who we are. Perhaps that is why we read Torah over and over again. Originally, only a few select scholars could read or study the written text. The majority of Jews simply gathered around the marketplace to listen. They heard the same words generation after generation. How many years do we have to hear a story before we understand it? How many times do we have to chant a prayer before we absorb it into our souls?

We cantors know in our bones that Jewish music, especially liturgical music, is more than notes and rhythms. Thatís why we canít explain how we feel about music to some people. Some people just "donít get it." Often because our discussions about are based on the wrong premise. Itís not about about style. Itís not about who sings which prayers, or even why or when. It's really a question of how. How do we listen? How do we pray?

As infants and children, our ego begins understand our world as either "me" or "not-me." It is natural, but I feel deeply misguided, for congregants to approach worship the same way. How many times do we hear, "If the choir sings, I feel I am being shut out"; or "If the cantor sings, when will my voice be heard?" These are legitimate questions. They are also constructs supported by a society which relentlessly reminds us to protect ourselves. Stay within the "me." Play it safe. Shut down and avoid being hurt. Don't become vulnerable. Don't be too open. Too weak. Most sociologist agree that isolation is the most rampant disease of our time. When we bring this ego-induced isolation into prayer, we shut ourselves off from the very essence of prayer ó receiving.

Menahem Mendl of Kotsk wondered, "Why do we say on Shavuot, Ďthe time of the giving of our Torah,í and not Ďthe time of the receiving of our Torah?í Because the giving was at Mount Sinai, while the receiving of the Torah is constant: every time and every moment that a person studies Torah ó is the time of receiving." How do we open ourselves and receive from the other - be it God, man or woman?

I struggle to allow myself to accept compliments or praise from others. I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from saying, "What, this schmatte?" when someone compliments my suit, or "I've sounded better," when someone compliments my voice. (Donít psychoanalyze me. Been there. Done that.) I've worked hard to understand my reaction to compliments and to respond differently. Deflecting these and other compliments would be more than selfish, it would be downright rude. What ultimately matters is accepting and sharing in their experience. Not mine. Sometimes I ask myself, "If I have to struggle to accept deserved praise from people about whom I care -- how can I possibly learn to accept Godís miracles, gift and blessings which surround me every day?"

Our tradition, as always, shows us the way. Abraham easily accepted God's promise of a new land and myriads of descendants. He answered God with the words, "Hineni -- Behold, I'm open to you." Well, bully for you, Abe. Most of us aren't lucky enough to be you. Jacob, on the other hand, had to wrestle with God before he received a new name and a new purpose. Only then he was able to open his arms to accept his estranged brother. Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him. Jacob didn't run to Esau. He bowed down and made himself smaller. He created both physical and emotional space for his brother. Most importantly he was open to the moment of reconciliation. My sense is that some of us are like Jacob. Like Abraham Moses responded to God's call with "Hineni" but, like many of us, he had low self-esteem. "Who am I?" he wondered, "I can't even speak properly. Please God, send someone else." He tried again and again to evade God. Finally, and only after God adds Aaron into the deal, Moses decides to accept Godís command and return to Egypt. From shared reception comes redemption. It is a beautiful model for vulnerability before the Eternal. We donít have to receive alone. In fact, we canít. Itís too much to bear.

"Víyeilchu shneihem yachdav." Like Abraham and Isaac we Jews walk together in faith towards an unseen goal. Musical selections donít create prayerfulness. Prayer creates prayerfulness. Music is a vehicle. Music is the vessel, not the wine. Walking together in prayer isnít about accessible melodies, great cantorial pieces or upbeat tempi. Beautiful singing can be empty. Feel-good clap-happy congregational music can be vapid and trivial. What is Jewish music? It happens when we embrace our congregation and allow them to embrace us. We pray best when we make ourselves most vulnerable, when we create space for others to walk with us ó whether in spirit or in sound. If we ordinary Israelites stand together, as we did at the Sea of Reeds and at Sinai, maybe we can learn to receive the gifts that God bestows to us in every moment. "Az yashir Moshe uívnei Yisrael." Only after we journey together can we sing as one.

How can cantors define Jewish music for people who "just donít get it?" As Eli would say, itís "extremely complicated." Or is it? Sometimes I think the most beautiful prayer in our service is the one we do at my shul at the very beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat. It doesn't have a melody or a text. I actually used to think it was too touchy-feely. All we do is greet each other and say "Shabbat Shalom." My rabbi and I hug. Strangers shake hands. People embrace -- in socially acceptable ways, of course. We look into each otherís eyes and acknowledge what we share.

Then we sing.