In the rush leading up to this past Shabbat evening, I was late to synagogue and decided to pray on my own at home before my dinner guests arrived. As I hurried through the psalms of kabbalat shabbat, I suddenly paused when I came upon lekha dodi. I began to sing and the melody started to flow- a new melody. As I progressed, it progressed. I was entranced; I fixated on the notes and the words, the intervals, the tempo. I was afraid to move on. I sat and tried to commit to memory the sweet, yet heavy, progression; rav lakh shevet be’emek habakha, “too long have you dwelt in the valley of tears,” said the stanza in which the fullness of the music was revealed. The niggun, or melody, so beautifully captured the melancholy yet hopeful transition between the struggles of daily life and the promise of Shabbat as a taste of freedom.
But I was stuck; I could not move on. I refused to continue my prayer. This gift was handed to me and, naturally, I wanted to keep it. I scrambled to hold on it; I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the notes on the piano with no luck. I desperately continued to dwell on the chorus as the minutes passed by, so worried at the thought of losing it. But how long would I dwell be’emek habakha, in the valley of tears? Rav lakh! “too long!”, shouted the prayer in front of me. It was hard to let go, but I finally did. I realized that all I could do was enjoy the melody while it was with me and appreciate the moment I had. For if I were not to accept the possibility that I might lose the melody by Shabbat’s close, and not be able to record it, I would in turn deny myself the opportunity to be present with God in the remainder of my prayer and with my guests at my meal thereafter.
Within the temporal and metaphysical space of Shabbat, Heschel’s “palace in time”, there are no smartphones or devices to document; there are only moments.
With life’s fleeting moments, we scramble to hold on to them, only to realize that we never had the opportunity to experience them.
How often when we begin to enjoy something happening in real-time, whether a dancer on the subway or the reveal at a surprise party, are we compelled to press record our devices, experiencing the moment through the lens of a camera rather than beholding the moment with our own eyes? How common is it for us to experience joy or love, only to spend our time in its presence dreading the possibility of its departure?
Those moments provide us with a choice of how to spend them. Do we spend them pre-mourning their loss, paralyzed by the tragedy of their fleetingness or trying to hold on to them at all costs, often missing the very moment we are trying to preserve? Or do we spend them present, aware and able to experience those moments while we have them?
Lekha dodi is a poem which helps us greet Shabbat and God’s presence as they approach. It calls for us to be awake and alive- for us to experience the brevity of Divine bliss, if not just for a day. Shabbat, especially in modernity, gives us the ability to experience moments and melodies for what they are, nothing more, nothing less. As an earthly paradise, me’eyn olam haba, “like the world to come”, Shabbat provides us a space to train to more organically experience life and the moments in olam hazeh, this world.
As I write this following Shabbat’s departure, I am unable to recall the niggun; all I have is the memory of the moment that I experienced and the residual feeling of the melody’s depth. Though I mourn the loss of its potential beyond that moment, I was lucky enough to have shared it with a loved one before it fleeted; we both enjoyed it together.