The Psalmist wrote: “Shiru Ladonai Shir Khadash.”—“Sing unto God a New Song.” This evening, we have experienced new songs and new expressions to words we say week in and week out. We change the music of our prayers not because the words of our prayerbook change. It is we who change, who grow. The human condition is about growth, about becoming more human and less animal. And it is music which gives voice to the changes in ourselves reflected in our prayer.
Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses the power of music in prayer in his essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor.” He writes:
“Listening to great music is a shattering experience, throwing the soul into an encounter with an aspect of reality to which the mind can never relate itself adequately. Such experiences undermine conceit and complacency and may even induce a sense of contrition and readiness for repentance. I am neither a musician nor an expert on music. But the shattering experience of music has been a challenge to my thinking on ultimate issues. I spend my life working with thoughts. And one problem that gives me no rest is: do these thoughts ever rise to the heights reached by authentic music?”
This is why it is important to introduce new music into worship—so that we may shatter our complacency and engage universal truths with new eyes and new hearts. Music is a form of midrash—from the Hebrew word “Lidrosh,” to “draw out,” to draw out new meaning and expression which on the surface might not be apparent.
However, to constantly bombard a community with new music is to ignore the values of tradition, of consistency, of stability. Familiarity gives us comfort, and we want to pray in a safe and warm environment. As cacophonous as the outside world is, here in our sanctuary, we seek protection from life’s trials and tribulations. It is the last place we want to feel unstable.
This is the balancing act that is worship—to provide moments which console the spirit, and at the same time to challenge the soul. If we feel too complacent, if we are not awakened from our slumber, then our prayer merely is about “feeling good,” not “doing good.” If we constantly change things in our worship, we feel unstable and have difficulty connecting to each other and the divine. This is why change is slow and yet necessary.
Yet, it is not enough to say simply that any change, whether it is in our words or our music, is good for worship. Always in my mind is the phrase, “Da lifnei mi atah omed!”—“Know before whom you stand!” Our prayers and our music should reflect this knowledge. I believe that Dr. Isaacson’s work this evening was composed with the proper audience in mind: The music is not for us, but for the Divine. The music is to inspire us to turn our hearts upwards and then in turn toward one another. To quote Heschel once again:
“A Cantor who faces the holiness in the Ark rather than the curiosity of man will realize that his audience is God. He will learn to realize that his task is not to entertain but to represent the people Israel. He will be carried away into moments in which he will forget the world, ignore the congregation, and be overcome by the awareness of Him in whose presence he stands. The congregation then will hear and sense that the Cantor is not giving a recital but worshiping God, that to pray does not mean to listen to a singer but to identify oneself with what is being proclaimed in their name.”
And so this evening, we sing a new song as the ancient Israelites did as they walked through the Sea of Reeds. We rejoice for the gift of life; we give praise for the world around us; and all the while, we sing out as the Psalmist wrote:
Come, let us sing to God: let our song ring out to our sheltering Rock.
Let us approach God with thanksgiving, our voices loud with song.
For Adonai is a great God, a Ruler high above the idols of every age.
In God’s hands are the depths of the earth; God’s are the mountain-peaks.
God made the sea, it is God’s; the dry land is the work of God’s hands.
For God is ours—our Shepherd, and we are God’s people and flock:
if only today we would listen to the voice of the Divine!