Between the Bookends

Since the time of the prophet Ezra some 2,500 yrs ago, the Jewish people have been furnished with a musical liturgy rich in oral tradition. Within this tradition, two groups emerged- the fixed (nusah) of our prayers as well as the molded trope systems, known as cantillation, which define the way we chant biblical verse.

When the Masorites codified the cantillation systems a thousand years ago, the symbols and names to identify a musical phrase were intended to be easy and straightforward- Sof Pasuk meant “end of the verse”; Etnachta from the root lanuach, to rest, the name given to the trope found in the middle of a verse, a place to pause both thematically and musically.  Whether we are reading torah or haftarah or megillah, these cantillation marks act the same way. The trope symbols are as much musical notation as they are punctuation, accentuation and interpretation of the words they pair up with.

The trope “Zarka” appears almost 700 times throughout Tanakh.  In most of our cantillation systems, Zarka, taken from the Aramaic word meaning “scattering”, moves note by note in an identical “scattering” motion.

[audio http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16898739/Recording%2010.mp3 ]

Keep that melody in mind for a moment.

Parallel to the development of our sacred cantillation system is our synagogue-chanting mode, the nusah, defined by distinct musical scales combined with the use of traditional phrases within a given scale.  There are only so many scales in use within traditional Ashkenazic worship, and so we look to the musical phrases to lead us to where we are in the religious calendar. To hear  the melody for High Holiday Maariv– we know it is the High Holiday season.  We don’t think “oh yes that’s a major scale.” We identify with a certain season, a sentimental connection to a time of year. To hear “Shabbat minha” it is suddenly Shabbat afternoon. Our festival davening, filled with numerous musical motifs, is defined, in essence, by 4 notes. These are the four notes that complete most phrases within festival nusah. Our opening and closing phrases share the same simplified nusah. Take the last paragraph of the Kedusha prayer, in which we transition to our festival nusah:  “Ldor Vador” to open, and “Hakadosh” to end our paragraph.

Each paragraph of our Festival liturgy is often bookended by the same few notes.

[audio http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16898739/Recording%2011.mp3 ]

The scattering Zarka. What does it mean to have our fixed liturgy begin and end with the same musical phrase?

17th Century Rabbi Samuel Archivolti articulated the connection between music and text:

“There are two categories of song. The first category is a melody, which is composed to fit the words in consideration of their ideas. For by melodic changes we are able to distinguish between pause and continuation, a fast tempo and a slow one, between joy and sadness, astonishment and fear, and so forth. And this is the most excellent type of melody in music, for not only does it consider the ear’s pleasure, but also strives to give spirit and soul to the words that are sung. This type of song was used by the Levites (in the Temple), for it is the only way they could have arranged their music, and it is the type fit to be written for songs in our sacred language.”

So we return to the simplicity of our opening and closing Zarka.  “Ldor Vador“- from generation to generation,

HaKadosh” – the one who is holy.

The musical motifs that define our nusah, the set ways of our liturgical lives, were once described to me by Cantor Simon Spiro as “Slalom Posts”- as a slalom skier descends the mountain, the objective is to go from post to post. What he does in between swiping each post is entirely up to him. This musical freedom is the journey we can take between Ldor Vador (generation to generation) and Hakadosh(holiness)- how do we as individuals and as community bring “Generation to Generation” to “holiness”? It is up to us to treat generations before with holiness just as much as generations to come! Our task is to fill that space between the opening and closing of our lives with holy music.

This task is brought to light through melodic intervals that define this holiday.

Today we continue to celebrate Chol Hamoed– the period in between the very much defined bookends of this holiday- On one end, we have our seders and the recitation of the Tal prayer. On the other, the Yizkor memorial service, reminding us not only about our redemption from slavery to freedom but of the necessity to remember all those loved ones who have journeyed with us.

Chol Hamoed– often mistranslated as “intermediate days”, is rather the mixing of two worlds- the holy and the every day. For as the name implies, Chol is the ordinary and profane, while Moed is an appointed time or place of meeting.

One way to experience these middle days is as a  twice a year event- to taste a little of the holiness of yom tov in the aura of the weekday. Or we can extend this metaphor to the ways in which we live throughout the year- making holiness the norm of practice. We mark the Yom Tov bookends in big ways, acting holy when we are surrounded by pomp and circumstance, by ritual, by community and those we love. These liminal moments are part of our collective Jewish and family calendar. What is even more difficult is living a life of Chol Hamoed– adding sanctity to the mundane every day motions.; adding “Moed”, set time during our ordinary day to appreciate the joy in our lives, to sojourn in a special space with the divine.

Zarka: trope, and by extension Nusah, are able to transport us to the space between. A paragraph like Ldor Vador that recite multiple times a day has new meaning when we add the festival flavor to it. The nusah uncovers this idea of “bookends”- that we begin and end in a similar fashion, but what we do in the middle is what matters most. May we take the journey between the fixed points of release and return, and fill it with the coloratura of action and interaction, of holy being and holy doing, of loving others and loving ourselves. As we continue to travel from slavery to freedom, may we find each ordinary day to be that much more extraordinary.

Posted on April 25, 2014, in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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