Rosh Hashanah Music: Remembering the Birth of Creation
By Cantor Josh Breitzer
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Every Friday night, my father would make Kiddush with his thoroughly dog-eared Prayer Book for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. He would begin reading Genesis 2:1 in Biblical English, “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their host...” and continue through the blessing proper. At the words, “...a reminder of Thy work of creation,” my little boy’s ears would perk up: it was almost time for grape juice and challah. “Thy work of creation.” Not until my HUC-JIR years did I give those quintessentially Shabbat words real consideration, and not until recently did my adult ears perceive in them the resonance of Rosh Hashanah, the day the world was born.
How did creation sound? Loud. I hear a chorus of shofar blasts1- each horn with its own voice and its own cadence, calling being into being and arousing the very dawn of time. Each morning of the month of Elul, the sound of the shofar awakens us with a start, spurring us to act.
How did creation look? Awesome. I see a figure robed in blinding white2 - royally astride the skies, beyond perception, beyond comprehension, an image of all that is holy. This time of year, the vision of God as Avinu Malkeinu reigns supreme in the Jewish mind’s eye, and we dare not avert our gaze.
How did creation feel? Tense. I sense a gripping immediacy3 - tightly coiled, guts roiling, nerves tingling. Maybe this is what Abraham felt when put to the test. Perhaps this is how Isaac experienced being bound, being tied in knots literal and figurative.
How did creation taste? Umami. I savor every syllable of Psalm 8:104 - the alliterative Adonai Adoneinu, mah adir... tripping off my tongue, as if uttering the words for the first time. Adir reminds my mouth of “dear” yet I know it really means “mighty,” “majestic,” and “marvelous.” No wonder the great sage Abudraham taught this song should be the Psalm for the New Year.
How did creation smell? Sharp. I breathe in and gasp, even shudder at the scent of newly-minted air filling my nostrils.5 How could I conceive of something so ordinary being so holy? “When a boy is born,” Leonard Bernstein wrote, “the world is born again and takes its first breath with him. When a girl is born, the world stops spinning round and keeps a moment’s hushed wonder. Every time a child is born, for the space of that brief instant, the world is pure.”
Every week we remember the work of creation, but only once a year do we remember the birth of creation. Rosh Hashanah 5773 gives me a chance to consider, with all five senses, the true nature of beginnings: this year may well be the first of many as another little boy’s father. Thus does my old world draw to a close and my new world come to be.
- Cantor Daniel Pincus, “Brooklyn Shofar Flashmob: A Blast of Terror” (Art Kibbutz NYC, 2001)
- Samuel Adler, “HaMelech-Shochein Ad-Baruch,” Yamim Nora’im (Cantor Howard Stahl, soloist; Aaron Miller, organ; School of Sacred Music Choir; Transcontinental Music Publications, 1995)
- Genesis 22:1-2 (High Holiday Cantillation; Cantor Marshall Portnoy, soloist)
- Joey Weisenberg, “Breishit Rikud Nign,” Joey’s Nigunim: Spontaneous Jewish Choir (adapt. Breitzer; Deborah Sacks, soloist; Mechon Hadar, 2011)
- Leonard Bernstein, “Greeting,” Arias and Barcarolles (Marie Lyne Phare, soloist; Graeme Wilkinson, piano; Boosey & Hawkes, 1988)
Cantor Josh Breitzer is music director of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY and adjunct faculty at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. In the final days of 5772 he anticipates the birth of a son and the creation of HaZamir Brooklyn, the 20th chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.