Finding Meaning — Four Decades Later

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea,
which cannot be measured or counted;
and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,”
they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God (Hosea 2:1).

I thought it was a bad mistake.

Over forty years later I wondered whether it was meant to be that way. If so, why?

More than four decades ago, I was given a tape and the text of the haftorah that accompanies Parshat B’midbar: Hosea 2: 1-22. I had no idea what I was chanting. I did not know the rabbi, whose raspy voice I listened to every day. I never met with anyone – not the rabbi, not the cantor, not a teacher. Not a single soul spoke to me about my bat mitzvah, its purpose, or the significance of anything I was doing.

I chanted a text I didn’t chose, that had no relationship to the actual time of my birth, and which I could not claim as my own. Hosea was an accident; my bat mitzvah was scheduled for administrative convenience.

In my bat mitzvah dress.
In my bat mitzvah dress.

Still: I loved Hebrew letters and was thoroughly entranced with the melodies of haftorah trope. I studied until I had each word note-perfect. Words I did not understand took root in my body. Decades later, I could still sing my haftorah.

I had sung it with sweetness, with devotion. I was unschooled and untaught. I was also mysteriously and inexplicably attached to Jewish cadences; a fact I would, even now, be unable to explain.

Decades later, I discovered what I’d actually sung. I cringed.

In this text from Hosea, Israel is humiliated and punished for her transgressions. God is obviously male, and violent. Though He promises to take Israel back despite her sinful behavior, His language is that of an abuser. Punishment, then gentle solicitation. Threats, then tender pledges of everlasting love, of certain commitment.

My birth parsha was Acharei Mot. For a long time, I wished someone had given me the choice. I would have liked the  text from Amos, which some Jewish traditions read with Acharei Mot. I would have wanted to sing about the God of many peoples, a God who not only acted to save and redeem Israel, but the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans, too (Amos 9:7).

I’d go back to Hosea each year and do battle with my own reactions. I’d sing the verses in my head and the sound would transcend the meaning in a way that felt simultaneously beautiful and wholly unacceptable.

I could remove some verses, understand them as a transcendent form of foretelling, as a truth-promise I wanted to believe in. After decades of teaching classes on the Holocaust, the opening verse, in which Hosea promises that the people of Israel will someday be innumerable as the sands of the sea, evoked consciousness of our loss.

It also evoked hope: a primal wish to see a people healed and whole.

But I never could get around the feeling that I should have chanted Amos, not Hosea.

This past summer, I sent in the second piece I am writing for a ten-volume series on Jewish spirituality. The first was on Mourner’s Kaddish. The second was on Havdalah. As I was finishing the Havdalah piece, I noticed that it was quite close to the word count of the Kaddish piece.

The Havdalah piece focused on the practice of magic in Jewish history and tradition. It centered on Queen Esther’s arrival in the siddur for just such a moment as Havdalah is – a liminal, enchanting time.

I believe in magic.

I sent the work off to my editor and told him that I had included a spell to make sure he liked it. Later I explained: There were exactly 4171 words in both pieces.

My editor wrote back, and told me that 4171 was the exact gematria for a particular verse in Tanakh.

Hosea 2:1. If this is your pasuk, your verse, he joked….

I wrote back to say that it might well be “my pasuk.”

Now I must ask why.

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To be… to live…

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

It happened at the first service I attended after my father’s death. I sang along with the others and heard my dad – instantly, singing harmony.

I don’t know how to explain that musical memory. By rights, I shouldn’t have it. I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish home with rare and brief bouts of synagogue attendance. I had about three months of Hebrew school, all told, and my bat mitzvah was potchked (Yiddish for “pasted,” “fiddled,” the product of messing around) together at the last moment. I was given a tape from the rabbi singing my haftarah portion and accompanying blessings without the slightest hint of inspiration or joy.  After I memorized it, we had a perfunctory service in the basement of a local elementary school. The temple was then under construction. I have no real memory of where the congregation was meeting otherwise (surely not that dank and terrible basement?) because we almost never went to services.

So why, to this day, can I hear my father singing certain prayers alongside me in that oh-so Ashkenazi accent with every kamatz the dialectical offspring of a marriage between “ah” and “oh”?

And why is it that prayer comes naturally to me as long as I am singing? Other avenues have been known to fail me.

When did I make that unspoken agreement with the Presence-Sweetness-Mystery that as long as I could sing I was oh-so-surely at God’s service, especially when I often think that making God a noun is about the deadliest thing we humans can do to religion?

I don’t understand it, really. I don’t know why I feel healed and whole when our congregation’s lay cantor, Angela Hodges, magically spins harmony over and under any melody I sing. I don’t know how my husband, Ralf’s, percussion becomes the heartbeat of the earth itself in all its manifold variations at every service. I do not know what is coursing through my feet and hands. I can’t explain why music and Hebrew and the two intertwining makes me feel like the world is clean and clear whether the prayer is joyous, plaintive, or thankful.

To be truthful, the sound of prayer is in most every song I sing. It’s something about longing and joy, I suppose.

It made no sense, I suppose, but I feared the effects of my recent thyroid surgery on my voice more than I feared a cancer diagnosis.

My history is riddled with relatives who battled cancer. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My aunt survived premenopausal breast cancer and thyroid cancer and lived until her nineties. My sister, Suzie, died young after a virulent premenopausal breast cancer exploded in her right breast and ripped through her body in less than a year.

Cancer took Suzie’s own extraordinary capacity to find a harmony to any melody I sang away so violently that I thought I’d never know what it was to sing together like that with anyone ever again.

To sing – and to dance – is to be. That has been true for me as long as I can remember. To be, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

I can’t imagine how I would live without singing. If living is holy, then singing is one of the sweetest manifestations of holiness I know.

My surgeon took great care to spare the nerves to my vocal chords. He is proud that he was able to protect my voice so beautifully. There appears to be no change in timbre or quality.

Today he told me, “I was just glad to hear there was no cancer.”

He reminded me, of course, what was important. I do know what mattered most. I do.

Still, I hope to be forgiven for my gratitude for the chance for a future in which I can sing all my prayers in my own voice. I will sing my thanks for life itself. I will sing my hopes for a world that is clean and clear.

I will sing, for that is my own holy blessing.

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