I just recorded my first album. In the wide sanctuary of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, with a circle of microphones, an array of drums and the curving beauty of an upright bass in front the bimah, a skilled and soulful group of nine singers and musicians joined with me to harmonize, groove, listen and lift Jewish prayer-songs that I’ve been composing over the last twenty years. I have been teaching these melodies in shuls, at retreats and workshops all over the US, Canada, Israel and England. We sing some of them at DJC services (like Ilu Finu and Baruch She’amar). I have loved the live, spontaneous experience of communities singing together, lifting our voices, lifting ancient Hebrew words off the pages of the siddur (prayer book) and letting them play on the instrument of our hearts.
Composing these melodies has been an act of spiritual devotion, nourishment and discovery for me – finding melodies for words of prayer that enliven their meaning, enliven my life and invite heart-opening, soul-stirring experiences. Recording these melodies has been one of the more terrifying things I’ve done – an act of vulnerable and daring courage, an embrace of imperfection and audaciousness, and a practice in authenticity, surrender and trust – singing my way through a flood of fears and judgements. And the experience of singing, creating and recording with this group unfolded as its own joy-bursting, yearning, inward-listening, outward-reaching prayer-song. Song is a language like no other. It has a particular texture of richness and resonance for touching in to life’s murmuring depths.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 52b #78) relates a quirky and fascinating story about what song is capable of:
“And so you find in the moment that David came to dig the foundation of the Temple, he dug down fifteen hundred cubits and didn’t find the tehom (primordial waters of chaos and creation), but in the end, he found a single teapot and wanted to throw it out.
It said to him, “You can’t (throw me out).”
David said, “Why not?”
It said, “I’m here to hold down the tehom.”
David said, “And since when have you been here?”
It said, “From the moment that the Compassionate One’s voice was heard at Sinai proclaiming, ‘I am YHVH your God,’ the land trembled and sank and I was put here to restrain the tehom.”
Even so, David didn’t listen to it. He threw it away, and the tehom started rising and threatening to flood the world…
So David started to sing songs – the (fifteen Songs of Ascent beginning) Shir Hama’alot…and for each song he sang, the tehom receded back to its original position” (quoted in The Torah of Music by Joey Weisenberg, p.32).
There are times when we can feel the world’s chaos or our life’s abyss rumbling just beneath the surface. There are times when the force of its floodwaters is unleashed, threatening destruction. The Talmud suggests that song has the power to bring calm to the chaos, weaving together breath and melody and deep resonance to settle and soften what feels wild, uncontrollable.
In a different version of the same story, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 53a), when David removed the teapot, the waters of the tehom sank rather than rising. In this version, the descending waters threaten the world with drought rather than flood. David’s serenade of the fifteen Songs of Ascent made the waters rise back up to be a source of nourishment and creativity again.
What a beautiful pairing of images for what song can create – in the face of overwhelming floods of inner anguish or outer chaos, song can soothe and restore calm. In the face of yearning and lack, in the absence of creative vitality, song can awaken, enliven and restore the flow of generativity. Maybe this is what it means to make our lives into prayer-song.
This month, in the Jewish month of Shevat, there are two opportunities to delve into song’s comfort and joyful, generative waking – 1) Shabbat Shira (the Shabbat of Song accompanying the Torah reading about the Israelites singing on the shores of the Sea of Reeds) on Friday January 26th when we’ll serenade Shabbat and each other, accompanied by our stunning musicians: Danny Greenspoon, Brian Katz, Rachel Sheinin and Hartley Weinberg, and 2) Tu B’shvat (the New Year of the Trees) on Tuesday January 30th when we will join with Jewish and Indigenous partners to sing nature’s melodies.
I look forward to sharing my album with you when it is released. Until then, let’s come together and sing!