4 October 2008
4 Tishrei 5769
On Rosh Hashanah I had the privilege and the responsibility of serving as my community’s shaliach tzibbur (chazzan, prayer leader) for the Shacharit service (the first half of the morning service). One of the most beautiful moments of the morning occurs at the transition between Psukei d’zimra (the introductory psalms and readings, during which many people have not yet arrived at synagogue!) and Shacharit, when the new shaliach tzibbur steps up to sing the dramatic “Hamelech (The King).” During the few minutes leading up to this moment, as I prepared for the hand-off from our Psukei d’zimra leader, I felt a combination of trepidation, anxiety, and excitement about the sacred responsibility I was about to attempt to fulfill.
I am sure that my anxiety was caused in part by my somewhat perfectionist tendencies, as I contemplated all of the mistakes I could possibly make. Yet as I reflect on that brief moment of anticipation, I realize that there were many dimensions to the emotions I felt.
On the first, most basic level, I felt performance anxiety – after all, there is certainly a performance aspect to leading public prayer: Would I recite the words properly? Would I remember the tunes? Would I sound okay? Would I be able to be heard? Would I lose my voice? On a more personal, perhaps deeper level than merely performance, I was about to stand before God on Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgment) to pour out my prayers, my songs of praise and petitions for mercy. Would I have enough kavannah (intention, focus)? Would I have the proper balance of reverence and joy? Would I worry more about what God hears than what my community thinks? Would I really be worthy even of my own prayers, let alone of leading my community? On a third level was the social trepidation about my relationship with the community for whose collective prayers I was temporarily responsible: Would they be pleased with how I sounded? Would they sing along with the tunes I chose? Would they respond when I called, and back me up when I needed it? Would I feel connected to them, close to them, nurtured and inspired not only by my vertical connection to the One before Whom I stood, but also by the horizontal connection to the ones with whom I stood – my family, my friends, my community?
Suddenly, my eyes and my heart were drawn to a phrase from the Nishmat prayer, the last section before I would begin. Perhaps I was drawn to them because they were the same words that our entire community sang together on our all-school Shabbaton in a joyous three-part harmony: “Ilu finu malei shirah kayam . . . ein anachnu maspikim l’hodot lecha . . . (Even if our mouths were filled with song like the sea, our tongues with melody like the waves . . . even if our eyes shone like the sun and the moon, our hands spread out like [the wings of] eagles in the sky . . . we would not be able to sufficiently bless you and thank you God . . .).” When I reached these words, I smiled as I remembered my students’ voices; and when the meaning of these words registered more deeply, I smiled for a different reason, this time in gentle laughter at myself and my anxiety. I felt humbled by these words – comforted, even liberated by the absurdity of the magnitude of the task ahead and by my own infinite smallness. Suddenly my entire mindset shifted: If I could just take my time reciting and singing the words, dayeinu (it would be enough). If could just close my eyes for even one moment of genuine kavannah (intention, focus) and personal meaning, it would be enough. If even one of my tunes would energize my community and generate even a brief experience of connection between us, it would be enough. What a gift those words were to me at that moment. Ilu finu malei shira kayam – just breath deeply, stand humbly, and take it one phrase, one prayer, one melody at a time.
Looking back on this experience, especially during this week of heightened teshuva (repentance) and self-examination, I am struck by how often high school students, and perhaps many of us, feel these various emotions as we make our way through school, through work, through our everyday lives. We feel anxiety about performance, whether reading aloud in class, taking a test or teaching a class. We question our own self-worth, wondering whether we are even up to the task or whether we have the capacity – the skills, the knowledge, the attention, the passion – to be successful. And we question our interpersonal relationships, wondering how secure we can feel and whether others are judging us, while all the time longing for connection, for the support, security and love of family, friends and community.
For me, in fact, the teshuva process in particular (symbolized by the overwhelming list of transgressions that we will read on Yom Kippur) is often filled with the same trepidation that I felt on Rosh Hashanah morning and with the tendency to focus on all the ways I have fallen short over the past year and will continue to fall short. I think it is appropriate, even positive, to generate a healthy level of productive anxiety about the goals and ideals toward which we strive; after all, we all need motivation to improve. But this year, especially in my most judgmental moments – of myself, my friends, my family, my students – I hope I can learn from and draw on last week’s experience as I strive to find the balance between my aspirations for perfection and my reverence for and humility about the task at hand. May we keep this balance in mind as we prepare for Yom Kippur and for this New Year.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Marc Baker