Building Singing Communities
Hazzan Joanna Dulkin
Spiritual Fitness (author unknown)
If you can start the day without caffeine or pep pills,
If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches & pains,
If you can resist complaining & boring people with your troubles,
If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time,
If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong,
If you can take criticism & blame without resentment,
If you can face the world without lies & deceit,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without liquor,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs…
Then you are probably a dog.
Today, I want to speak about how the act of sacred singing, as a spiritual practice – in other words, singing in spiritual community can improve your “spiritual fitness.”
The act of singing is both creative and cathartic, and it’s GOOD FOR YOU.
Yehuda haLevi, the medieval poet and thinker wrote: Prayer is for one’s soul what nourishment is for one’s body. The blessing of one’s prayer lasts until the time of the next, just as the strength derived from one meal lasts until another.... During the time of prayer, one cleanses the soul of all that has passed over it and prepares it for the future.
Think about that: prayer is nourishment for your soul: it is what the soul needs to stay “fit.” As with any fitness program, you don’t start out by running 26.2 miles or schvitzing for 90 minutes at an advanced Zumba class. Maybe you take the stairs instead of the elevator. You park farther away from the entrance to work or the store. You buy a fitness tracker and set small, meetable goals. Same with nurturing your prayer life, and here is my prescription: start small, perhaps with a niggun.
A niggun is a prayer that has been distilled to a wordless melody. A niggun is an invitation to travel inward, to shake you out of “auto pilot.” As one begins a niggun, they become less and less self-conscious of what is immediately around them, even of the tune itself. A person begins to experience a deeper and more personal form of prayer, and to tune into the prayerful energy of those around them.
The Piaceztner Rebbe, otherwise known as Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira was a 20th century Polish Rabbi whose life was brutally cut short in the Shoah. He left behind a stunning body of writing, including instructions for spiritual practice around meditation.
Taking a part of a niggun you know, turn yourself to face the wall, or just close your eyes, and think that you are standing before the Throne of Glory on which God sits, and with your heart broken you have come to pour out your soul to God with song and melody which come from the innermost part of your heart. Then you will certainly feel that your soul is coming out as you sing. If at first you were singing slowly before your soul in order to arouse it from its sleep, slowly, slowly you will feel that your soul has begun to sing on its own.
It will happen sometimes that was you sing, without intending it, you will spontaneously begin to speak words of prayer to God. … your soul comes out of its sheath to fly upwards…and from the depths of your heart you will cry out in pure prayer to God. And lest you think that such prayers are somehow less important that those written down the Siddur, you should know that prayers such as these come from the very same quarry from the soul itself is hewn.
Your soul comes out of its sheath, flying upwards. Song and melody from the innermost part of your heart. Pure prayer to God. I’ll take it!
The Zohar, a seminal mystical text, tells us that “In the highest heavens, there is a certain temple with gates that can be opened only by the power of niggun.” As Hasidism developed and flourished in Eastern Europe during the 18th century, the act of spiritual singing as a congregation was elevated to an essential element of the movement. The power of singing in devotional community was part and parcel of the Hasidic desire to cleave to God at all times. Practically speaking, if folks didn’t know Hebrew, or the prayers, or even how to read, it was the niggun, with its simple syllables of “oy yoy” “bam bam” or “lai lai” that became the universal accessible instrument of prayer; a way of transcending earthly concerns and connecting to the Divine. And also, practically speaking, the singing of melodies together, whether niggun or congregational melody, helps each community create a shared musical vocabulary and identity.
The next musical layer, after NIGGUN, is CHANT, probably the oldest form of Jewish music. We chant the Torah, megillot and Haftarah (i.e. we don’t sing them) because chanting is based on the language (insert fancy word: logogenic – language centered!) We also chant in a more contemporary context, through simple repetition of a small selection of words to a melody, such as “el na refa na la” that we sing for healing on Shabbat Mornings. The chant itself can be musically simple or complicated but the form is easy: sing, sing, sing, and repeat.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a master composer and chant leader, wrote an entire book about how Hebrew chanting heals the spirit, transforms the mind and deepens love. She is the author of hundreds of Hebrew chants, and teaches that “chant is an embodied practice (YOU FEEL IT IN THE BODY): we can’t stay in our heads, merely thinking ABOUT or contemplating ideas, no matter how sublime. When I chant, every molecule of my body is vibrating, jarring loose the power of stored memories and making that force available to me as I build the power of intention.” Her book teaches a new-old approach to song leadership, and details how to facilitate chanting circles, which have become quite popular.
Another phenomenon growing in popularity is singing circles, which we will have the opportunity to experience later tonight. Singing circles employ niggun, chant, song and sometimes short teachings that flow together to create a fully immersive experience. If you have ever sung around a campfire, or experienced an Israeli Shira b’Tzibur (community song session), a Quaker song session or even a Bluegrass Hootenany, you have tasted the magic of a singing circle. One of the people responsible for the many Jewish singing circles that have popped up all over the world is Joey Weisenberg, a visionary composer and founder of the Rising Song Institute (part of Hadar). Weisenberg wrote a book called Building Singing Communities and muses in his introduction: “In the last few decades, Jews around the US and elsewhere have begun to re-explore their collective singing heritage……..Just think how far we could come if we treated the songs sung in our day to day [lay] synagogue community as seriously as we do the music created by professional stage musicians. We could create an atmosphere of both great beauty and drama in our spaces of prayer – we would value each and every individual in our community as a creative musician, and encourage their efforts in an attitude of musical collaboration….this reality is possible, if only we educate ourselves about and hold ourselves to aesthetic standards, if we raise the bar just a bit higher on what we can achieve together in beautiful conscientious song.”
So, how do we achieve this? Weisenberg’s answer: just reframe the goals. What if the point of singing together was about Process and not Product? What if the main purpose of gathering people together in song were to “create communal musical energy” – rather than musical perfection? How would this feel?
Part of the answer is in today’s Torah reading: the Song of the Sea – a piece of Torah so important that the rabbis added it to our daily and Shabbat liturgy. And part of the answer is in our own experience. We can study it, or read about it, or hear today’s Torah reading, but I encourage you to live it, this evening, and make a move to improve your spiritual fitness.
I will close with a teaching from the Slonimer Rebbe, a Hassidic master known as the Netivot Shalom, that appears in our Siddur alongside the Song of the Sea.
I Will Sing
Sometimes we sing to ourselves—no one else hears the sound, yet our minds are singing.
Sometimes we sing—our vocal chords voice a tune, and all can hear it and recognize it.
And sometimes we sing and every cell of our bodies contains the song. Such songs transform both the singer and the listener.
That is the way that the people Israel sang as they were saved, in crossing the Sea.
Song is a part of being alive. It begins in the breath, then a melody, then grows into song, and singing together, the music becomes part of a larger group energy. What will happen tonight when regular people get together and sing? You should come find out! Shabbat Shalom.
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