Monday, September 29, 2014

Rosh Hashanah: It Always Sounds Better on Vinyl – Finding a Way into the Machzor, Rabbi Scott Perlo

It Always Sounds Better on Vinyl – Finding a Way into the Machzor
Rabbi Scott Perlo

I’m warning you, I’m going to sing.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
)In Jewish Youth Group I was told that they were( Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

There’s something about this song. Something that made it stretch across the endless, precious hours of summer camp time. Something that makes singing along almost mandatory. Some of you were humming in your seats. Protest all you want; I know your secret, Washington, D.C.

In this song, music is metaphor - a metaphor for spiritual connection. This place, right here, - this is the sacred store, where we heard the music once before. For when these Days of Awe were created, they contained within them all that we were and all we hoped to be. And when we sang these prayers, their echoes rang to the depths of our souls.

But it's as much a metaphor for the collapse of that connection: the power and the grandeur and the glory of the old ways - they took the last train for the coast. It is the feeling that something has been lost, and that it can't seem to be recovered.

I’m going to use music as a metaphor too - a metaphor for the entire spiritual experience of the high holidays. When I say music, what I will mean is yes, the melodies themselves, but also the content of the prayers, their words and their ideas, and the quality of the experience of being here, whether engaging, whether disengaged, on the holiest days of the year.

And what I want to ask you is: when you come here, when you come to services on the holidays, when you walk into a spiritual space, when you stand here, does the music play for you? Does this spiritual experience play for you?

For some, the answer is literally yes. Those strains are stirring. They wake grandeur in the soul, and a sense of the anticipation of the majesty of the Days of Awe, as if one were preparing the house for a distinguished guest. Those sounds are the sounds of the expansiveness of the soul.

But not for everyone. Not for most. Have you come to the holidays yearning for a connection? Do you come hope to be moved? Yet is what you see people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening? People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dares disturb theקול דממה דקה[1] - the sound of silence.[2]

The hardest part for me is that, for all the noise, for many people the holidays are the sound of silence.

Is this you? Do you come here hoping that the jukebox will play, and that the record is an oldy-but-goody that’s as old as it was new, as if today, the world was created over again, as if [3]היום הרת העולם, today the world was born. Is what you find instead is boredom? A kind of forgetting in which each page indistinguishable from its neighbor? If you are bored on the holidays, if you have felt that they are empty for you, then this drash is for you.

Many people say that the problem with the holidays is that the music is too complicated, that the prayers are too long and too unfamiliar. But I’m not sure I buy it. For when we hear that song - that song that grabs us, the music that moves us - the effect is instantaneous. The first listen it’s intriguing, the second inspiring, and the third an old friend. And the problem with the holidays is that, these days, when so many of us hear the music, we say, “Not for me. Where is the music that moves my soul?”

My guess, though, is that when the holidays don’t speak to us, it’s because of a single problem, a single issue: God. The story of the holidays is about God, and not just God, but God sitting on a throne, judging us for our goodness and our wrongdoing, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked - affixing our destinies. And as they used to say in the business, that just won’t play in Peoria. Speaking personally, that is not a story in which I can believe.

There are a wealth of people who neither understand nor love nor have sympathy for a vengeful God. We have never been a “sinner in the hands of an angry God,” kind of religion, and to tell the rambler, and the gambler, and the backbiter that God’s gonna cut them down[4] - that is not a groove into which our needle falls. But, without a doubt, our ancestors believed that to each action there was a reward or a punishment, and that cheeseburgers brought on moral calamity perhaps far above their true effect.

As someone who keeps kosher, and Shabbat, and still believes that these actions are hugely important without incurring God’s wrath - a vengeful Rosh Hashanah has no place in my heart. It is an image, perhaps, whose time has passed.

Erasing an old image, however, does not eradicate a spiritual need. For there are questions that haunt me at night, questions about who I am, and what I’m doing; questions as to the purpose for which I was put here; questions about whether God exists and, if so, how to connect with my creator. How should I live? What is the meaning of my life?

And, if I were to do what every generation before me has done, I could redefine my understanding of what God is. Framed in the light of the desperate, essential search for meaning, the turntable slowly starts to spin. And the song, though scratchy when it starts, gains more and more fidelity. For in the Machzor, hiding in plain sight, are the strains that shake the soul. And what I want to offer are the ways that this book still gives insight into our condition and outlet to our desires and best wishes.

I doubt, somehow that my descriptions will match your rhythm. But the beauty of the Jewish spiritual experience is that interpretation of any piece of music is the province of the individual.

To begin with the obvious, there is in all of us the desire to change - to be better, to become better. For this is a deep motivation in my heart that I yearn to find strength in pain, and I will change my ways, and I’ll know my name as it's called again.[5]

But the problem isn’t just a matter of willpower, or of focus. For I don’t always know how to be good, what the right choice is, in this chaotic world. (EAGLES) It feels sometimes like we’re like sheep without a shepherd/we don’t know how to be alone/so we wander ‘round this desert/wind up following the wrong gods home.[6] שחתנו, תעבנו, תעינו, תעתענו[7]: We’ve messed things up, we’ve spoiled them, we’ve gone astray, worst of all - we’ve led others astray with us.

And somehow, things turn out opposite from the way they had been intended to be, opposite from the hopeful desires, different from the earnest plans. And we are years older, and we wonder just how we got here, what we did, what can still be done, considering? It is a painful thing to look around and see regret so firmly woven into everyday life. Painful to understand that to be an adult is just to be another child who’s grown old. And to know that if dreams were lightning, and thunder desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago.[8]
אל תשליכנו לעת זקנה, ככלות כחנו אל תעזבנו![9] - Do not cast us off in old age; When our strength declines, do not forsake us!
[10]אבינו מלכנו, חננו ועננו, כי אין בנו מעשים - Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us, even though we do not have the merit. “Just give me one thing that I can hold onto, to believe in this livin’ is a hard way to go.”

But to wallow in deprecation and pain is an endeavor without merit. The way out of our predicament is to realize that everyone is in it together, and that compassion is the first step to transcending confusion - asking mercy for own flaws, displaying compassion for the same flaws in other people. רחמנא דעני לתבירי לבא, ענינא![11] Merciful one - who answers the broken-hearted - answer us too!

There is one way to transcend our own pain and our own frailties - by being of service to those who share them. We all have pain; we all have sorrow. We pray for the strength to say to another person, “when you’re not strong, lean on me.”[12]  ואנחנו כורעים ומשתחוים ומודים[13]- We will bend ourselves, we will lay ourselves down, like a bridge over troubled water,[14] when others need it, and we’ll be grateful for the opportunity.

For there isn’t a person here who is not searching for virtue, looking for a chance to be good, who wants to live, who wants to give, who’s been a miner for a heart of gold.”[15] ותשבוה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה[16] - And we know that returning, repenting, sincerity, prayer, charity - these things will take away the bitterness in our fate.

Remember back to the faith in goodness that we had when we were children, the faith that our parents had in our goodness. (PINK FLOYD) Remember when you were young, how you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond.

הבן יקיר לי אפרים, אם ילד שעשועי? Are you not my precious son, my beloved child?
על כן המו מעי לו, רחם ארחמנו, נואם ה'[17] My heart yearns for him -- the compassion that we have for our children, that our parents had for our goodness, we should, with the wisdom of whatever years we possess, fight to bring back to the world.

So we ask for forgiveness:  סלח לנו, מחל לנו, כפר לנו[18]- forgive us, pardon us, give us atonement. And we take responsibility for any wrong that we have done, and we put those wrongs aside, hoping for a future. For it’s possible that:
When the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.[19]
והביאותים אל הר קדשי - God will bring us all to the holy mountain,
ושמחתים בבית מקדשי - and bring us joy in the house of prayer.
עולותיכם וזבחיהם לרצון על מזבחי - All our offerings, all our sacrifices, will be wanted.
כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים[20] - For God’s house will again be called the house of prayer for everyone.

Said the Marahal of Prague - that God is One means that God is essence of simplicity. ה' הוא אחד - פשוט בתכלית הפשטיות[21]
Perhaps there is not a spirit in the sky,[22] but I believe that there is a River at the source of all things; a River that is not above us, but underlies us - a stream of pure holiness and simplicity; a stream that listens and is aware, a river which from it all things springs. Like all rivers, God’s river speaks and sings. The music of that River is justice...and injustice too; and the rushing sound of that River is love...and hatred; and its streams are streams of wisdom...and foolishness. But the goal is to learn to navigate that River’s course, to be patient enough to know the safe from the treacherous.. to chart our course through its ebbs and flows, and through its flood season and drought. From it we come, to it we return, and, as we live our lives, with it we are bound.

The salient feature of the holidays is this: for those of us who find ourselves lost upon the shores, on this day we go down to the River to pray[23], with our brothers and our sisters. We go to reconnect; we go to find our way again.

For me, the best part of this drash is that every line of it is stolen. It’s all pure theft; hopefully, though, theft of the best kind. So let me thank my victims and my inspirations. By my count that’s Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Mumford and Sons, the Eagles, John Prine, Bill Withers, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Norman Greenbaum, a Slave spiritual, and, in a moment, the Shakers. But what I ask you to see is that for every lyric comes a line from the Machzor, is preceded by it: from Unetaneh Tokef, and from the Confession on Yom Kippur. From Selichot, the forgiveness prayers and from Zichronot - the prayer of Memory in Rosh Hashanah.

Ultimately, the Machzor is the original medium. And everybody knows that it always sounds better on vinyl.

Instead of a divine superego, I pray to connect with the great Simplicity underneath it all, that links us all, that is at the heart of us all. God is simplicity. It is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free, it is a gift to come down where you ought to be.[24] עננו, זך וישר, עננו[25] - Answer us, that which is Straight and Pure, answer us. Master of Mercy, who answers the needy, and the humble in spirit, and the broken-hearted, answer us too. Help me find the meaning in which I am meant to take part. Help me find again the music for a life that matters.

[1] Unetaneh Tokef, The New Machzor p.282
[2] Simon and Garfunkel, "The Sound of Silence
[3] Rosh Hashanah Musaf, The New Machzor pp. 310, 320, 326
[4] Johnny Cash, "God's Gonna Cut You Down."
[5] Mumford and Sons, "The Cave"
[6] The Eagles, "Learn to Be Still"
[7] Ashamnu - the Confession, The New Machzor p.462
[8] John Prine, "Angel from Montgomery"
[9] Shma Koleinu - Hear Our Voice, The New Machzor p.458
[10] Avinu Malkeinu
[11] From Selichot - the Forgiveness Service
[12] Bill Withers, "Lean on Me"
[13] Aleinu
[14] Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
[15] Neil Young, "Heart of Gold"
[16] Unetaneh Tokef, The New Machzor p.282
[17] Zichronot - the Memory Prayer, Rosh Hashanah Musaf, The New Machzor, p. 314
[18] Al Chet - For The Sins, The New Machzor, p. 466
[19] The Beatles, "Let It Be"
[20] From Isaiah 56:7 - multiple citations in Machzor
[21] ספר גבורות השם - פרק ס"ז‏
[22] Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky
[23] Slave Spiritual
[24] Shaker Hymn
[25] Selichot

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