Theologian, Art Green says, “The core of our worship is not a prayer at all, but a cry to our fellow Jews and fellow humans. In it, we declare that G-d is one – which is also to say that humanity is one, that life is one, that joys and sufferings are all one”.
Growing up, I had a difficult time connecting to the experience of communal prayers. Somehow, the three hour long services consisting of sitting and standing plus chanting difficult Hebrew words that sounded like we were all collectively clearing our throats, archaic English mixed in with the clouds of gossip about “what is she wearing,” wasn’t the most suitable environment to feeling the presence of G-d in my life.
There was one moment in the service, however, that always caught my attention - it was the Shema. It never ceased to amaze me how focused everyone’s energy became when it came time to recite the Shema. The snoozers awoke, the children were proud to participate, even the yentas stopped gossiping. It seemed that the Shema united everyone with just six very powerful words – “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad”. Regardless of denomination, we all share this affirmation of our belief in the concept of oneness.
I always looked forward to the Shema, because if only for a brief moment, I felt the presence of something very powerful – the sensation of what it feels like when our voices are united as one and the possibility that comes with that has been a guiding presence for me through my life.
As Jews, we are taught to believe that G-d is one, that G-d is around us, with us and within us. I yearned and searched to understand G-d and feel more of that sensation I felt during the Shema. I was addicted and moreso, I craved to feel it in other parts of my life. And so, I searched everywhere for this harmonious feeling. Surely, it was not just reserved for the Shema, there must be more opportunity to feel it. But unfortunately, I couldn’t find more of it in within the walls of a synagogue, so I searched elsewhere, and I found music.
Music is everywhere - in the birds song of mornings, in the rhythm of our beating hearts. By its very nature, music is within us and around us. It has the power to heal, and the power to unite. Music makes us tap our feet, bop our head, dance, make the hairs on our arm stand up, smile or cry . It does so, without us even understanding why or how it works. Most importantly, it moves us.
There is a moment when a band is so in sync with one another, something magical happens - instead of hearing separate instruments, a unified sound emerges and transforms into a feeling. And this feeling was oddly similar to that of which I found in the Shema. We all may sing along to the same song, but our experience with the song, is our own.
So how can we have more moments of experiencing the sensation of ‘oneness’ beyond just the Shema? The greatest musicians of all time always say the key to playing great music, is not about how loud you can play your own instrument, rather it is about how well you can listen to your band mates in order to know how your sound fits in with everyone else in order to make a harmonious, cohesive sound.
The Shema reminds us to hear and when leading services, it is my greatest hope that congregants will listen. Not to me, but to themselves and to the unified sound of their community. To help foster this kind of environment, I like to ask congregants to “zoom out” to hear beyond their own voice, and to find a place in the larger sound that emerges as we sing.
I believe my story is not unique. I’ve met so many young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s with a similar narrative – and that is one of searching. We are a generation who is thirsty for a connection to something greater than ourselves, and looking everywhere but the synagogue to find the tools to do so. Therefore, it is my hope that by implementing more musical moments into the synagogue, we can offer a much needed opportunity for people to come together and pray in harmony, just like a great band that’s been playing for years.