In my travels to various synagogues around the country and over the years, I have encountered a great deal of discomfort with “Aleinu l’shabei’akh,” a prayer that occurs toward the end of our communal worship, and proclaims that it is our responsibility to bow in acknowledgement of the following realities: we have not been constructed like other peoples of the earth; our communities feel obligated to act in particular ways that are often contrary to those around us; our piece of the pie is not the same as others’; and, we have unique baggage bequeathed to us by previous generations. Many see this as an unbelievably chutzpa-dik, holier-than-thou kind of statement. I can understand that. People struggle because they believe that being chosen has something to do with privilege. But perhaps chosenness has everything to do with responsibility, not reward.
When various household chores needed attending to in our home, I would often call upon my children to perform those tasks. Not because they were particularly skilled in this area, and there was certainly no reward involved. They were either in the right (or wrong) place at that time, and the job needed doing. They were chosen. The jobs were theirs to do, simply because they were raised in this particular family. Other families may very well function differently than ours.
The Jewish story is different than other stories of the earth. Our Torah, our travels, our tragedies and our triumphs are unique to our community. And no more or less unique than those of other religions and races and cultures. These stories and histories are our foundation. There are no better or worse stories. There is no contest. To think that we all have the same world-view, or that our values are prioritized in the same way is unrealistic. I hear Aleinu as an expression of appreciation for my community’s assumed responsibility for the betterment of the world. My entire Jewish upbringing tells me that in order to live with integrity, and in harmony with others, I must embrace the reality of our differences, and fulfill the vision that my Jewish journey has handed me.
I am obligated to repair the world. I am obligated to seek out the k’doshim b’chol yom, the holiness inherent in every day. I am obligated to take care of others, to love unconditionally, to use my words wisely, to maintain an open heart, and to have positive relationships with those around me. For all that I am expected to do, which takes up my entire life and is the real reason that I am here, I am obligated l’shabei’akh/to sing praise. In reality, the attempt to live in that way is the praise. It is the choosing to be chosen.
I think that we say Aleinu at the end of the service, with one foot out the door, so that we remember why we came to begin with – to embrace our chosenness, to gather communal strength for the journey, and to mindfully incline ourselves toward that unending sense of responsibility that is our inheritance.
“Aleinu l’shabei’akh” may be my favorite prayer of all. Especially in these troubled times. There is great work to be done.
In his essay, “The Vocation of the Cantor,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To attain a degree of spiritual security one cannot rely upon one’s own resources. One needs an atmosphere, where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community… It is the task of the Cantor to create the liturgical community, to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship.”
Those of us who lead communities in worship (shlichei tzibbur) are always striving toward this goal. Rarely do we encounter more challenge than when attempting to lift our communities with a new musical setting for a particular prayer. In defense of our congregations, I often feel that we are guilty of an unintentional lack of transparency from the bima. And so I share some thoughts that I hope will open minds and hearts to a broader perspective on the introduction of new music within the context of communal worship:
• The use of new melodies in worship grows from a desire to help the words of the siddur or the poem or the iyyun (contextualization or illuminating thought) jump off the page and into someone’s heart. The musical settings are means to an end. As a shaliach tzibbur, with any number of diverse congregants present at any given moment, we must make use of a vast repertoire. Not every melody will unlock every heart, and the “right” melody is dependent not only upon the individual desires of each congregant, but upon the ever-changing needs of the community and the world from week-to-week, or even day-to-day.
• I do not have to produce sound in order to pray. I’m always surprised when new musical settings for our prayers are judged primarily by their capacity for immediate communal singing. There are times when I have so much more to gain by opening my heart and my ears instead of my mouth, and allowing the music to carry me to places that my own voice cannot go. Many of us awaken suddenly and significantly at the symphony, or a Broadway musical, or in numerous other venues where deep engagement is achieved simply by means of a listening heart. We do not participate in a sunrise or a rainbow or other awe-inspiring moments except by bearing witness, and allowing them to “do their thing.” These are moments of blessing. In worship, I do not want the enormity of my gratitude, or longing, or grief, or joy to be limited by my own capacity for vocal expression. Sh’ma. Listening from the heart, sometimes even to melodies that we have heard a hundred times or more, is also participating, unifying, strengthening, and praying.
• Really beautiful communal melodies often take time to learn. What if we treated new melodies as honored guests? Wanting to put our best foot forward, we can welcome them warmly, engage them in conversation, listen to and learn from them, and invite them to return in order that we can get to know each other better. I need to open myself up a bit, in order to give them permission to do the same. Every beloved, cherished, old melody was once new.
Some melodies will become old friends, some will challenge and teach me, some will hold the key to someone else’s heart, and I can appreciate that as well. I will enjoy sitting quietly with some, and audibly expressing my joys, hopes, or sorrows with others. Some relationships will deepen more quickly, and some melodies will never be more than acquaintances. But they can be recognized as members of our congregations who have come to share their gifts, and are strengthened in turn by our open doors and hearts.