I love chanting through a service in nusach. There is something mesmerizing, meditative in gentle repetition and subtle variations on musical themes. But sometimes I have known a rabbi or cantor to focus more on demonstrating proficiency than channeling sincerely. Authenticity, though, is not ensured by maximizing the Hebrew and minimizing the time it takes to deliver it.
Our prayers are rich in meaning. Our prayers have a purpose. Even when I know my congregants cannot themselves translate the words I am chanting, I believe that if I daven the words from my heart, my cadences, my emphasis and my pauses will help them feel, even understand the kavanah of the siddur. I don’t always have to intermix English with Hebrew, or provide an introductory explanation. Music is a medium for heart and soul.
We pray while singing, and our tears tell the truth.
I went to Costa Rica this past July and relearned this lesson from another rabbi. I was there, in part, to daven, drash, and teach at Congregation B’nei Israel in San Jose. Rabbi Darío Feiguin and Ileanah Carazo, a former student of mine, had invited me. Ileanah is now preparing for the rabbinate through the ALEPH ordination program. She also serves on the B’nei Israel board.
B’nei Israel is beautifully served. Rabbi Darío savors prayer. Kabbalat Shabbat was a joyous and musical collaboration. The next morning, Rabbi Darío led Shabbat Shacharit almost entirely in nusach.
Most of the congregants likely could not translate the Hebrew of the prayerbook. Yet, Rabbi Darío used his voice to give over the longing, the hope, and the joy that is embedded in the siddur. He did not reduce nusach to a drone. He did not cloak it in a monotony it never, ever deserved. He did not rush. He did not go on automatic. He treated each prayer gently, honoring the words like the divine poetry they are.
In listening to him lead, wholly and simply, I came to know his heart. His davening brought tears to my eyes.
A congregation served by such a rabbi is a congregation that can welcome others. It is a congregation that is willing to be nourished by a stranger because its own rabbi is a teacher who values learning in whatever form it might take.
We were at the close of B’midbar that week, and I had been asked to lead Torah study. I knew there were many students of Judaism in the room, people coming home, returning to their tribe. There were also members of the shul whose Jewish ancestry could be traced back for many generations.
But they all possessed an inner Torah, I said, as we began our session together. They all possessed Torah wisdom.
We studied the last year in the wilderness together. We spoke of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. We reviewed the events that led Moses to rage and the people to apostasy.
“We have, each one of us, known a year of pain,” I said. “What wisdom, what inner Torah did you learn from a long period of struggle?”
Darío’s wife Yudi, a woman of energy and ebullience, had tears in her eyes. She spoke of family, community, safety. Another woman cried openly, and spoke of courage. One man spoke of learning how to feel worthy again.
“The Torah,” I said when our time drew to a close, “is our mirror and our oracle. It shows us who we are and it tells us who we can be. To read the Torah is to understand ourselves, our community, our purpose. Read Torah, and become a holy people.”
It was Darío who now had tears in his eyes. Why? Rabbi Darío loves his work, he loves Judaism, and he loves Torah and God.
Congregants led by a rabbi who can touch hearts can open their own. Congregants led by a rabbi who can teach will be able to hear. A rabbi conscious that each word chanted, each word read, each word studied can provide Torah to the world is a rabbi who can change lives. Darío is such a rabbi.
Rabbi Darío stepped forward, thanked me, and led the davening. In nusach. With devotion.
We prayed while singing, and our tears told the truth.