February 18, 2010 Week 327, Day 4 4 Adar 5770

Beyond Ein Kamocha – Music for taking the Torah out of the Ark
Cantor Kay Greenwald


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Three weeks ago, Rabbi Rick Sarason elucidated for us the very beautiful and moving liturgy for taking the Torah out of the Ark.  As Rabbi Sarason reminded us, this act is the high point of the synagogue service on Shabbat morning.  Moreover, the ritual and liturgy surrounding taking out the Torah recapitulates our Sacred Story of receiving the Torah for the first time at Mt. Sinai. 

Last week, my colleague Cantor Jodan Franzel, discussed music for the very significant texts, “Ein Kamocha” and “Av Harachamim,” teaching us about not only traditional music for these texts, but also offering us his own newly composed settings.

It can be difficult to move away from such moving and important liturgy – so why, then, does Mishkan T’filah offer us numerous other textual and musical choices for taking out the Torah?  These choices are there because each of them highlights a different aspect of reading Torah in Jewish community.

The first alternate text we find is “Hak’heil et haam,” (“Assemble the people”) at the top of page 363.  These words from the book of Deuteronomy highlight the communal aspect of Torah reading in a very profound way.  They remind us of what it takes to build a community:  men, women, children, and even those who are strangers to us.  Listen to a small portion of this very beautiful setting of the text by Rabbi Corey Weiss.  With its subtle modulations (key changes) and soft harmonies, this setting of the text emphasizes how diverse voices and ideas can join together as one community for the sacred task at hand:  learning and teaching our people’s ancient wisdom. Listen

The words from Proverbs at the bottom of page 363 (“Ashrei adam matza chochmah,” “Happy is the one who finds wisdom”) bid us to be joyful as we study our ancient Text.  As you listen to the two settings of this text attached here, think about the different sense of happiness that each of them imparts. The first, by Kol B’seder is entirely upbeat, and expresses pure joy at our opportunity for study.  The second, by Rebecca Schwartz, is still up tempo, yet it has a somewhat more contemplative feel – reminding us that reading Torah may require effort on our part in order to find all the joy that study may bring us. Listen (Kol B’seder) Listen (Schwartz)

At the top of page 364 we come to the familiar text, “Ki mitziyon teitzei Torah,” “For from out of Zion will come the Torah.”  We are all familiar with the setting of these words by Solomon Sulzer, which is used in congregations throughout North America. Listen As it happens, there are many settings of this text from the book of Isaiah.  The setting included with this essay, by Rabbi Ken Chasen, captures a Middle Eastern sound, while using a popular folk rock idiom (this Middle Eastern sound can be heard particularly well in the way the drum is used in the musical introduction).  The sound harks back to Israel – the land of Tziyon – the source of Torah and our people’s identity.  Listen

On page 365 we read the wonderful prophecy from Isaiah:  “Lo yarei-u v’lo yashchitu,” “They shall not hurt or destroy.”  Perhaps the best known setting of this text today is the one by Debbie Friedman and arranged by Cantor William Sharlin that can be found on the NFTY recordings.  This setting actually combines the text found at the top of page 365 with that at the bottom of the page (“V’chit’tu charvotam l’itim,” “They shall beat their swords into plowshares”).  The music takes us from yearning for that distant time when war is no more into a place of jubilation as the vision of that world spreads before us.  While the “Vichit’tu” section is actually written by an Israeli composer (Ezra Gabbai), the upbeat tempo and the use of banjo lend an authentic American style to this poignant dream for the future of our people and our world. Listen

The setting of this same text by Jeff Klepper also uses upbeat tempi to express the hope found in these words.  Like the Friedman/Sharlin setting, it begins more slowly – but this time in a declamatory style.  This musical style lends authority to the text, which then gives way to a sense of freedom and release as the tempo begins to move with the words, “V’yashvu ish tachat gafno,” “And all shall sit under their vines.”    Listen

The final musical setting attached here, is a setting of “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev” (“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation”) by Dan Nichols.  For use in the Torah service, the Hebrew section would need to be excerpted.  Even out of context, Dan’s melody expresses longing for a better day.  Listen

It is these last words, in particular, that remind us why we study Torah in the first place:  to learn to be an Am Kadosh a Holy People.  Only through studying, absorbing – and thus embodying – our Sacred Story can we begin to bring that day closer when “never again shall they learn war.”  How better to make these lessons a part of us than through the music of our people?

Kay Greenwald is Cantor Emeritia of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA. She serves as president of the American Conference of Cantors.

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