“Wanted: 30+ year-old with family obligations. Must struggle to make a livelihood. Should be attractive, humble, of pleasant demeanor and well-liked by people. No physical deformities. Free of sin with a spotless reputation, even as a kid. Should also be possessed of a sweet voice and musical ability, be well-versed in the Scriptures, capable of preaching, skilled in [liturgical] chanting, conversant in Jewish law and rabbinics, and must know all of the prayers by heart. Clothes must always be clean. Expected to be the first to enter the synagogue and the last to leave. Beard optional.”
This mighty list is, in fact, the cantor’s job description, taken from the Talmud & Jewish codes. It is exacting, intimidating, and sublime. Originating in the ancient strictures of the kohanim — the Israelite priests — these cantorial ideals were refined and reasserted through years of rabbinic discourse concerning the ideal qualities of such a person who would serve as the community’s sheliach tzibbur – its symbolic advocate before God. It is during the High Holy Days that the hazzan’s fitness to become that symbol is truly put to the test. How can one person hold the prayers and trust of a whole community? The weight of these ideals is the spiritual fire behind the Hineni – the intensely personal prayer of the hazzan, sung before he or she leads the community into the heart of the Days of Awe.
Ideals are heavy things. Like weight training, ideals try us, push us, but also make us stronger. It is no mistake of language that the Hebrew word for “heavy” and the word for “honor” — “kaved” and “kavod” — come from the same root. Ideals are the weights of our inner strength-training.
In our lives, each of us serves as a symbol in some way. We each perform many jobs (or roles) in which we strive to uphold ideals and standards. We are parents, children, spouses and relatives; we are workers and professionals, bosses and employees, teachers and helpers; we are Jews, citizens, and human beings. Each identity often carries its own job description and its own story, many of which inevitably come into conflict. On the High Holidays, the multitude of stories within us comes squarely into focus — who are we? for what do we strive? and how do we measure our lives?
These are heavy matters. Looking at the above list, I am inspired and yet aware of my own humanity and the ways in which I fall short. But as a hazzan, I have always found a lightness in the joy of music. It is this joy that is an everyday Sabbath for the soul, balancing our daily striving for our honorable and weighty ideals. Just as our muscles need rest before another workout, our hearts need to rest in the love of God and family to renew our energies to grow into our best selves. It is in music that this repose of the heart is most beautifully illuminated.
My undergraduate voice teacher, Paulette Herbich, taught me this lesson. In her studio, she always made you feel that you were special, and that singing was a gift and blessing from God. She taught me how our music teaches us some of the greatest spiritual lessons of life — loving; suspending judgment; caring for each note as if it were the attention you give to your baby child. Letting your music emerge joyfully; not being a slave to this world and to the judgment of others. Living from the root of love, rather than from the root of fear.
On these weighty High Holy Days, I am still inspired by these lessons. I am moved when my wife, Rabbi Elyssa Austerklein, beautifully intones the contemporary song: “Ahavat Olam – We are loved by an unending love.” It is the nourishment of this Great Love that is the rest that each of us needs to grow, to love, and to cherish life.
This High Holidays, I bless you all with musical and personal encounters with God — both that that lead towards the weighty ideals to which we each aspire, and to the embracing Love that is yours. I invite you to join me in song, as we grow together in inner strength.
This was first published as a message from the clergy to Beth El Congregation before the High Holy Days.