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In Memory of Shira, a"h: R. Abraham Joshua Heschel on Prayer and Song

Tomorrow night, the 25th of Kislev, is the sixth yahrzeit of my friend Shira, a"h. I wrote about her life and her death last year. This year, I would like to share some Torah in her memory. I would very much have liked to learn this passage from Heschel with her and to have gotten her insight on it. I spoke with Shira once about the difficulty I was having going to minyan around selichot time. (She encouraged me to try the Student Conservative Minyan instead of the Orthodox minyan, but I declined.)

I find it especially appropriate to contemplate tefillah (prayer) and shira (song) in Shira's memory for a few reasons.

When Shira died during my junior year of college, on the first night of Chanukah, the idea of davening at all, ever, seemed preposterous. What words does one really have for God after a tragedy such as that? I didn't say Hallel that Chanukah at all, because my mouth could not physically form the words. The first time I went to shul for kabbalat Shabbat after her death, I had to leave the room. It was too painful to even be witness to the tefillah of others. It was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back of an already-weakened commitment to regular prayer, and I no longer pretended to daven even an abridged shacharit every morning.

And thus I lived my life from December 2000 until this past August, when I decided to start going to morning minyan again, regularly, for the first time in quite awhile. My goal was to go to a weekday shacharit minyan a few times a week, and it's been an uphill battle on many days, since I am definitely not a morning person. Some weeks I go three or four times (usually late, timeliness is also not a particular strength of mine); some weeks I don't make it at all. I never regret it when I go, despite the few minutes of sleep it might cost me. Davening mostly consistently for the past few months, whether in or out of shul, has had a palpable difference in my life. It markedly improves both the rhythm and focus of my days. I hope to both continue davening and improve my timeliness and attendance at morning minyan over the coming months.

One of the many, many things that is so hard when people die tragically is that the tragedy sometimes seems to rip God away from us just when we need him most. Being angry at God is a natural response to tragedy, but when that anger makes it impossible to even contemplate speaking to God or to continue in one's spiritual practices, it's a double tragedy. Not only have you lost a person you loved very much, but you've also lost a way of connecting to something greater than yourself, something outside the all-encompassing world of your grief. You've lost the connection to one of the few things that might help you through your grief.

The only way to face the fact that we all die, that human life is incredibly fragile and unfairly arbitrary, is to embrace the idea that we were all created in the image of God ("ויאמר אלהים, נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו"), and that we all contain Divine sparks and therefore aspire to connect to something that exists beyond death. One of the ways that human beings are different from animals is that we are terrifyingly aware of our own mortality. This could paralyze us, or it could empower us to imbue whatever time we have here with meaning. One of the things that I learned from Shira and from people who spoke about her after her death was that Shira lived in the present. By doing so, she invested every moment of her short life with beauty, insight, laughter, friendship, song ("shira"), and dance. She was a force to be reckoned with. May we all aspire to do the same, even as we mourn her absence.

* * *

The following piece was shared with me by Rosh Kehillah Dina Najman, and its beauty literally gave me the shivers. It is why I daven, why I sing, why I listen to music, and why I go to shul. In many ways, this passage describes why I have returned to a more consistent spiritual/religious/halachic practice in the first place, after slip-sliding a bit in college and after.

I hope it moves you, too. The parts that gave me extra-shivery shivers are in boldface.
What does a person expect to attain when entering a synagogue? In the pursuit of learning one goes to a library; for aesthetic enrichment one goes to the art museum; for pure music to the concert hall. What then is the purpose of going to the synagogue? Many are the facilities which help us to acquire the important worldly virtues, skills and techniques. But where should one learn about the insights of the spirit? Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence? It is easy to find people who will teach us how to be eloquent; but who will teach us to be still? It is surely important to develop a sense of humor; but is it not also important to have a sense of reverence? Where should one learn the eternal wisdom of compassion? the fear of being cruel? the danger of being callous? Where should one learn that the greatest truth is found in contrition? Important and precious as is the development of our intellectual faculties, the cultivation of a sensitive conscience is indispensable. We are all in danger of sinking into the darkness of vanity; we are all involved in worshiping our own egos. Where should we become sensitive to the pitfalls of cleverness, or to the realization that expediency is not the acme of wisdom?

We are constantly in need of self-purification. We are in need of experiencing moments in which the spiritual is as relevant and as concrete, for example, as the aesthetic. Everyone has a sense for beauty; everyone is capable of distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly. But we must also learn to be sensitive to the spirit. It is in the synagogue that we must try to acquire such inwardness, such sensitivity.

To attain a degree of spiritual security, one cannot rely on one's own resources. One needs an atmosphere where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community. We are in need of students and scholars, masters and specialists. But we also need the company of witness, of human beings who are engaged in worship, who for a moment sense the truth that life is meaningless without attachment to G-d. It is the task of the Cantor to create the liturgical community, to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship.

Pondering his religious existence a Jew will realize that some of the greatest spiritual events happen in moments of prayer. Worship is the source of religious experience, of religious insight, and religiously some of us live by what happens to us in the hours we spend in the synagogue. These hours have been in the past the wellsprings of insight, the wellsprings of faith. Are these wellsprings still open in our time?...

We are not alone in our acts of praise. Wherever there is life, there is silent worship. The world is always on the verge of becoming one in adoration. It is man who is the Cantor of the universe, and in whose life the secret of cosmic prayer is disclosed. To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and that its glory is present. In singing we perceive what is otherwise beyond perceiving. Song, and particularly liturgical song, is not only an act of expression but also a way of bringing down the spirit from heaven to earth. The numerical value of the letters which constitute the word shirah, or song, is equal to the numerical value of the word tefillah, or prayer. Prayer is song. Sing to Him, chant to Him, meditate about all the wonders (I Chronicles 16:9), about the mystery that surrounds us. The wonder defies all descriptions; the mystery surpasses the limits of expression. The only language that seems to be compatible with the wonder and mystery of being is the language of music. Music is more than just expressiveness. It is rather a reaching outward toward a realm that lies beyond the reach of verbal propositions. Verbal expression is in danger of being taken literally and of serving as a substitute for insight. Words become slogans, slogans become idols. But music is a refutation of human finality. Music is an antidote to higher idolatry....While other forces in society combine to dull our mind, music endows us with moments in which the sense of the ineffable becomes alive...

The siddur is a book which everyone talks about, but few people have really read; a book which has the distinction of being one of the least known books in our literature. Do we ever ponder the meaning of its words? Do we seek to identify our inner life with what is proclaimed in the nishmath: 'The soul of every living being blesses Thy name, Lord our God...'? And yet, there are those who claim that the siddur does not express the needs, wants, aspirations of contemporary man.

We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our Prayer Book. Without intense study of their meaning, we indeed feel bewildered when we encounter the multitude of those strange, lofty beings that populate the inner cosmos of the Jewish spirit. The trouble with the Prayer Book is that it is too great for us, too lofty. Our small souls must first rise to its grandeur. We have failed to introduce our minds to its greatness, and our souls are lost in its sublime wilderness. It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English; it is not enough to have met a word in the dictionary and to have experienced unpleasant adventures with it in the study of grammar. A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life. Words are commitments, not only the subject matter for aesthetic reflections...

The art of giving life to the words of our liturgy requires not only the personal involvement of the Cantor but also the power contained in the piety of the ages. Our liturgy contains incomparably more than what our hearts are ready to feel. Jewish liturgy in text and in song is a spiritual summary of our history. There is a written and an unwritten Torah, Scripture and tradition. We Jews claim that one without the other is unintelligible. In the same sense we may say that there is a written and an unwritten liturgy. There is the liturgy but there is also an inner approach and response to its, a way of giving life to the words, a style in which the words become a personal and unique utterance.

--Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, pp. 242-248

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