One of the most remarkable features of the Portuguese Spanish Selichot, besides the text, is the choice of melodies. The tunes are not like those of the Edot HaMizrach, the Eastern Sefardi communities. They are much nicer, with due respect, surely much more beautiful than those of our Ashkenazi brothers.
The Portuguese Spanish Selichot are different in that their tunes are very optimistic and joyful. They are a pleasure to hear.
Still, to sing about one’s transgressions in an optimistic tone, as if proud of them, is quite remarkable! It begs the question: How can a person feel pride about his transgressions? Would it not be more appropriate to chant them in a subdued voice, dramatically, to sad music?
Why ask a chazzan with a beautiful voice, accompanied by a grand choir, to lead these prayers? Shouldn’t the congregation get someone with an untrained voice who would sing the Selichot simply and humbly?
I believe there is a profound idea behind this phenomenon: To be given the opportunity to do teshuvah is an enormous privilege. It is a joy to be able to say I am sorry. In fact, it is one of the great gifts that Judaism has given mankind: the knowledge that man can change; that if he has not been successful the past year, he can turn over a new leaf and start again. This is the ultimate expression of religious optimism. Judaism teaches man that there is no karma that traps him, and no original sin that stands in his way. Man is free to re-engage with God and his fellow man. He can regret his deeds. Whatever obstacles there may be, all that is required is the will to change his ways and the effort to work hard at it.
Over the years, we have misunderstood the meaning of prayer and chazzanut. In most synagogues, services are heavy and often depressing. There is an absence of joy and spiritual outpouring.
True, it is not easy to speak to God. In fact, it is a major undertaking, and not without great risk. Who are we to speak to God? There is chutzpah involved. Even more outrageous is the fact that we dare to praise God. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once observed: Wer einem lobt stellt sich ihm gleich. He who praises someone places himself on the other’s level. Or, as Aristotle said: Everyone may criticize him, but who is permitted to praise him?
Indeed, the question is crucial. Logically, such boldness should not be permissible. The answer, however, is that God is prepared to compromise His greatness for the sake of man and come down to his level, or lift man to such greatness that he can touch His Throne.
This is the internal knowledge of the religious man. Through it he realizes the joy and the privilege to be allowed to praise God and ask His forgiveness, in spite of its impertinence.
Nothing expresses this joy better than singing the Selichot in an optimistic tone. Not only is man allowed to say the Selichot; he is commanded to do so. It is the celebration of man’s vulnerability as well as his grandeur. It is God’s great gift to man.
What, then, is the function of the chazzan and choir? Many seem to believe it is to give a musical performance; to provide a “charming service” for the congregants. But such an observation is a tragedy. It’s a violation of the very goal it wants to achieve. More than that, it’s a kind of idolatry entering our synagogues.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “The Cantor has to pierce the armor of indifference”. Chazzanut is not simply a skill, or a technical performance. It is a protest against apathy; a nearly impossible battle to rescue the words of the prayer book from spiritual oblivion. The chazzan’s task is to lift the printed words from the very page on which they appear and turn them into a prophecy through which man will look in the mirror and realize that he must run for his life. He has to disengage himself from the all-too-familiar prayers, which have become stagnant and deadening. Chazzanut is the art of putting wings on the words, elevating them to a world that many of us no longer recognize. The goal is to unbind the words from their own restrictions until, in an explosive burst, they scatter into new meanings and carry us to a newfound world of spirituality.
The chazzan and the choir must lift each word out of its confined meaning and turn it into something that the word on its own is unable to convey. To sing is “to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word” (Heschel).
The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 94a)) that God wanted to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Mashiach. After all, he was a great tzaddik, a righteous man who even turned Jewish education on its head by ensuring that “no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of purity and impurity” (Ibid 94b). Never, says the Talmud, was there such advanced Torah learning in all of Israel. And yet, Chizkiyahu’s son Menashe was utterly wicked. The Talmud asks, in astonishment, how that could have been. Such a righteous father; and such an evil son! Surprisingly, the Talmud responds that the reasons why King Chizkiyahu did not become the Mashiach and why he had such a wicked son are one and the same: He didn’t sing! That showed that he lacked understanding of the value and profundity of singing. He didn’t realize that just as music sets the soul on fire and draws us nearer to the infinite, so does singing. “It takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Menashe never heard his father singing. He was probably a very serious and somber man. As a result, he couldn’t purify his heart and mind. He was left with stagnated words that couldn’t move him and ultimately led to his wickedness.
We must never forget that because Chizkiyahu didn’t sing, he could not be the Mashiach. And all of us lost out.
No song – no Mashiach.