Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Flag of Prayer and Dangerous Choirs

September 8, 2013

Flag of Prayer and Dangerous Choirs

Success! (for now). The numbers where all up and by a lot. Note: all numbers are estimates of highest attendance during the services – as I’ll explain later they are not indicative of the majority of those in attendance for the entirety of the services.

Here’s the score. 1st night Rosh Hashana about 100. 1st morning about 300. 2nd night about 50. 2nd morning about 150. By all accounts this is a significant improvement over previous years, though as others remind me is nothing compared to the heyday of when thousands attended the services.

In the last few years the attendance at the night service had been a mere couple of dozen men in a synagogue designed for one thousand in a neighborhood where the majority of Jews now no longer live. I was told it was always a cause for depression. I had innocently suggested perhaps conducting the services in a smaller venue closer to where the Jewish community is now centered (Pocitos). The leadership did find such a location, a beautifully constructed, smaller synagogue (150 seats) in Pocitos.

The first night was not filled to capacity, but felt close to it with a wonderful ambiance. The powerful voices of the Hazan and choir reverberated off the high ceiling as all participated in the prayers. I gave a number of explanatory comments before some of the major musical compositions which gave the audience some preparation and insight as to the upcoming prayer. I noted multiple people then reading the translations closely. All in all a success.

The following morning, after walking for 45 minutes and arriving on time for the 9am start of services I ended up waiting for over an hour until we had a minyan (a quorum of ten men needed to say the communal prayers). From 10 until 12 people slowly straggled in while I for the first time in my life read the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana, was the Gabai (person calling up the people to the Torah and saying the blessings on that honor) read the Haftarah (portion from the book of Prophets) and then prepared to blow the shofar.

Around 12 the flood gates of the synagogue opened and all of a sudden the place looked full. I gave a speech before blowing the shofar and included comments about the situation in Syria, what the Jewish response should be and then handed out a newly composed prayer by Rav Yuval Sherlo praying for the end of the killings and the safety of all in the area. Though some may be gleeful of two enemy groups of Israel killing each other, we value life and do not rejoice at senseless murder and brutality. I had the whole congregation read the Spanish translation together and then I said it in Hebrew. It seemed to be a moving point of the service.

Then came the big moment – blowing the shofar. Now bear in mind that I had been speaking or reading continually to a large audience in a larger hall for over an hour. My mouth was parched, my lips dry. I brought the shofar to my lips, said the blessing and blew. The sound that came out was more like the whine of a small dying animal than a powerful ram’s horn blast. I tried again. A squeaky painful sound came out. I pushed again, a kosher sound came out (the shofar blasts have a prescribed pattern and duration that they must conform to in order to be considered “kosher” – one hundred such sounds must be heard over the course of the prayer service).

I felt both the pain and the empathy of the crowd at the pitiful sounds the shofar was making. I don’t know if that helped or hurt their prayers and thoughts, but they were definitely with me and I had their attention. I asked a choir member to bring me some water. I kept pushing with another series of blasts. More pain. Finally a cup of water appeared. I drank thirstily feeling the cold liquid fill my mouth, smooth my throat, refresh my vocal chords.

I blew again and now it was a different ball game. Strong, clear sounds came out. I was in control of the shofar. I heard an unconscious sigh of relief and pleasure from the congregation. These were the shofar blasts people knew, wanted and expected. These were the sounds that would carry their thoughts and prayers heavenward. This was the real thing. 30 blasts in all for the first stage.

Then came the silent personal prayer stage (amida of musaf). More shofar blasts interspersed there (3 x 10). I liked this custom (some communities have these as another set of 30 later on). This way it’s spread out and gives me more time to catch my breath.

Another 3 x 10 in the Hazan’s repetition of the prayer. Then I noticed something I wasn’t expecting. Nobody answered “Amen” after the Hazan and nobody said the verses that the whole congregation classically says. Now this is problematic for two reasons. Though there were 300 people present, we do not fulfill the obligation of communal prayer if no one is participating. The second was simply the passive nature of the attendance. The Hazan was powerful and masterful, the choir was superb at the level of the top choirs that I’ve heard in both London and Jerusalem. Therein lays the danger of an excellent choir. One prefers to hear the angelic voices delivering the liturgy to the heavens rather than saying the prayers oneself. It becomes a performance and not an active engagement. But fear not – the next day I corrected this.

The second surprise was Birkat Cohanim (the blessing of the priests). Those of Cohanic descent ascended to stand in front of the Ark containing the Torah. I gave a short explanation as to the power of the blessing and the custom of not looking at the hands of the Cohanim. The Cohanim turned to bless the congregation. Then, as one, and to my bewilderment, the entire congregation stood and turned their backs to the Cohanim and stayed that way until the end of the blessing. I understood the logic, but the practice was wrong – I would address that as well the next day (a clear advantage to having two days of Rosh Hashana).

At the end of the services I was congratulated for the success of the event, the amount of participants, and the general positive feeling everyone walked away with.

My son Netanel was with me for all of the services acting as my assistant, turning the page numbers on the big billboard and just being a wonderful companion and helper.

We walked back for an hour to lunch and then had to climb up 8 flights (not used to so much exercise). Delicious lunch by a master chef, wonderful company and discussions.

Second night back in Pocitos with a smaller crowd, but still very nice and enjoyable. We were treated to a Sefaradi Hazan with some assistance by the Ashkenazi Choir. All happy and smiles. We hosted our first proper meal at home of a few families which was fantastic, despite us not having our container yet and managing more on local, disposable and bought items. Tamara somehow still managed to cook up a storm with just a pot and a half.

Second day back in the center (the walk didn’t get any shorter despite unrealistic hopes otherwise). Services were called for 9. We didn’t have a minyan until 10:30 (Note to self: next year I’m just going to call the start of services for 10.)

Again reading of Torah, Prophets and speeches. However, I was determined to tackle the “Amen” and congregational participation issue. I took a small Israeli flag that I had in my office. I explained 3 or 4 times (every half hour a new group of people came in) that when I raise the flag everyone needs to say Amen and when I wave the flag everyone needs to say the verse we’re up to.  The “Amen” was a resounding success. After having everyone practice saying Amen loudly, they got they hang of it. Repetition of verses got a smaller response, in part because not everyone was following where we were and not everyone can read Hebrew, but I think we got at least a minyan-worth of responses out of the 150 participants at the height of the second day.

For my sermon, I tackled the theme of Jewish identity, using as an example the Uruguayan Health Card I received that some clerk had mistakenly written “Nationality: Jewish” as opposed to Israeli. I may write more about the whole topic in the future.

Shortly after a more successful blowing of the shofar (Netanel prepared four cups of water for me) the crowd emptied out, so that by the end of services we barely had a minyan. More thinking required for next year.

Before the Birkat Cohanim of the second day I gave a short story about mistaken customs and explained that though turning ones back away from the Cohanim was a logical way to not look at their hands, it was disrespectful to the service and blessing and there were other solutions (looking down, covering head with tallit). Half of the congregation faced forward, but half still turned around.

All in all, was hard work, but successful by all accounts with ideas for improvement for next year. Now need to prepare for the really big event of Yom Kippur. We’ve lined up an expert on drug addiction to join our panel on the Jewish View of the Legalization of Marijuana – should be interesting…

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