CA Mission Sermon: Understanding the Magnitude of the Moment
In this week’s torah portion we learn about inheritance- the daughter’s Zelophechad wanting to inherit land, and Joshua inheriting the leadership of the Jewish people. These inheritances are new and out of the ordinary. They remind us that there is more than one shade of inheritance. Inheritance is something we receive from both family AND community. What are the kinds of things we inherit from family AND community? It’s not just inherited land or leadership, as we find in this week’s parsha- there are inherited traits, inherited traditions. Focusing on inherited traditions from family and community, what is OUR responsibility to preserve THESE inheritances.
I have distinct memories of my childhood: Friday night, guests visiting our home for Shabbat dinner. There’s awkward point in the midst of our introductory blessings, during the Kiddush, when I place my hand on my forehead and pray that my father does not embarrass us with his “family” version of the Friday night Kiddush. He insisted that this was in fact the right way to chant, and the Jewish masses had it all wrong.
Fast-forward to Cantorial School, year one. The following piece of sheet music is placed in front of me during a Nusah practicum class. The setting for Kiddush was composed by mid to late 19th century German composer Louis Lewandowski. Father to many familiar melodies from our Shabbat and Holiday services, Lewandowski was given the title “royal musical director” and was later appointed choirmaster in the Neue Synagogue of Berlin, for which he composed the entire musical service.
Following class, I frantically called my dad to let him know that the way he chanted Friday night Kiddush was in fact same way the composer has it written down in front me. What a great “you were right” moment for a father and son! But the message of this piece goes much much deeper. For this isn’t a Holzer family tradition, this is a set composition, each word given specific notation by its composer because those words needed to come alive in a particular way.
There are two words that stick out as being variants to what we might call our “standard” Friday night Kiddush melody. Even for those who don’t read music, it’s easy to pick out that the words: “zikaron”, reminder, and “zecher”, remember. For Shabbat reminds us of both creation (zikaron l’maaseh v’reishit) and the exodus (zecher l’tziat mitzrayim)- so that we remember both the awesomeness of creation AND the difficult journey to freedom.
The musical irony is that time has simplified these two phrases, as if they were forgotten to the masses. But the music has the power to drive the meaning of the text. Lewandowski wanted us to focus on remembrance. My father chanting that second phrase, “zecher l’tziat mitzrayim” sticks out for me because we should remember the entirety of the exodus- the struggles and hardships, to better acknowledge and appreciate the journey to freedom.
Lewandowski- great Jewish composer from Germany; Zikaron, Remembrance: These were some of the thoughts and questions going through my mind as I prepared a few weeks ago for our Cantors Mission to Germany.
How do we remember, and how much do we choose to remember? To give proper kavod to those who were lost, its important to view the entirety of German Jewish life- past, present and future. While there are many lessons and experiences to share in the coming months, there are two stories in particular I’d like to share with you all this morning, to give you a sense of the importance of both personal and collective memory for us as a people.
We journey back to 1938, to the Neue Synagogue. This is Lewandowski’s home from 50 years earlier, a place where his choral works inspired the melodies that are the cornerstone of our musical liturgy. It was one of the most notable centers of Reform Judaism in the world. On Nov 9, 1938, “Kristallnacht”, the Neue Synagogue was set ablaze, Torah scrolls desecrated, f
urniture smashed and other combustible furnishings piled up and set on fire. The main sanctuary that once seated 3,000 people will not be restored.
Today, services are held at the Neue Synagogue, though most of the restored areas are used for a museum. Members of the Cantors Assembly Mission visited on the Jewish tour of Berlin. The museum includes ritual artifacts and photographs from the German Jewish community. The group finally entered a cavernous entryway into what used to be the main sanctuary. In the far corner there is a glass case with a book open to the title page “Kol Rina Utefillah”, Bote and Bock Publishing. Published in 1882, this is one of two volumes of Louis Lewandowski. To the right is a picture of a young Lewandowski. In this holy space are the composer, his brilliant work, and the spot where it all first came together. This alone is a spiritual experience- how often do we get to see an artist, their canvas, their inspiration, and their studio.
As I look to the center of the room, there is a black and white picture of the old sanctuary plastered on the wall. One can only imagine what was once there but no longer. It’s within this context that a few cantors begin an impromptu chanting of Lewandowski’s “Tzadik Katamar”, which you all know from Friday night. More and more join in his choral setting, creating a 4 part harmony, as the sound reverberates off the walls. Normally, we might hear a piece of music that takes us back to when we first heard it- where we were, what we were doing. Imagine a melody transporting us to a time and place when the melody itself was first heard, connecting us to place and people. I close my eyes, having the context of this music, this man, and this space. I picture the sanctuary alive and booming from seams because of this melody. The group understood the magnitude of the moment and embraced it. Imagine if we could understand the context of where we are, where we’ve been, what we are doing and why? Think of where we are today- where we’ve all come from; our own personal exoduses to reach this place, this day. If we embrace those moments, we can create such powerful experiences.
Having met with members of the German Jewish community as well as political and religious dignitaries, I believe that Jewish life is thriving in Germany. I’ve debated whether or not our group did enough outreach and interactive dialogue with the local communities, but I think that our goal was not only to see German Jewish Life, but to bring Jewish life to Germany. This was accomplished through our Shabbat morning service dubbed “Shabbos at the Ritz.” This four hour service was led by 45 cantors- you could have called it the great cantorial duel. Having only a page or two of liturgy to work with, each cantor found ways to weave in cantorial pieces, congregational melodies, and choral works. Many of the melodies were unfamiliar or written just for this service, but the kehillah of over 300 embraced these new melodies. Everyone was singing and dancing. It had to be the most energetic and musical 4 hr, Shabbat experience I’ve ever had. It’s not every day that I get to spiritually journey to 45 different cantors’ synagogues (it would normally take years for me to physically travel to all my colleagues’ synagogues) and so I’ve returned with a number of melodies I hope to introduce in the near future. Here’s one in particular that stood out. It’s always a thrill when a congregation can hear a melody being sung by its composer, some learning the melody for the first time. Ofer Barnoy, the composer, led us in his L’dor Vador two weeks ago. Let’s sing!
From Generation to Generation- it is our responsibility to have what Lewandowski so emphasized: “zikaron”, reminders. If we don’t embed these stories places and people into our personal memory, they will not find traction in our collective memory. The charge “never forget”- often associated exclusively with the Holocaust, does in include the honoring of the memory of those individuals who were lost, but at the same time, we must recognize the and remember the culture that may still be preserved. May the melodies we sing unlock that collective memory. May the music on the page and in our hearts continue to be that anchor to our history and people. Let us never forget the magnitude of being here today, the greatness of being in this community, of having the freedom to shout God’s praises each and every day. Shabbat Shalom