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Kol Nidrei 5772/2011
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Kol Nidrei 2011/5772 - Music - ©Rabbi Jack Moline

I am not an anthropologist, sociologist or psychologist. I am most certainly not a musicologist. Hey, by some people - maybe even in this room - I am not even a rabbi. But tonight I want to talk about music. And in my continuing quest to illustrate that there are divine sparks in all aspects of human culture, I want to use as my main text tonight a song by a wayward Jew, poet and composer Leonard Cohen.

Some people set out to discover certain spiritual truths, and others stumble over them. Artists occupy the no-man's-land between the two, compelled to be creative by an internal impulse and harnessed by the conventions that measure their popular success. Leonard Cohen is no exception. Even his most remarkable works, including the song I chose for tonight, include a few forced verses and rhymes. But they cannot erase the power of his successes. And here is what he articulated for all of us.

"I've heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord."

It is my contention - from my perspective as not-an-anthropologist, not-a-sociologist, not-a-musicologist - that the secret chord that David played resonates within each of us. Ask me if the secret chord that King David brought to light is the same one that it in my soul or yours and I have no answer. But whether you are blessed with extraordinary musical talent like Elisheva and the members of Ein Lanu Zman, or modest skill like me, or tone deafness like - well, you know who you are - music is in your soul. Its power is unstoppable. It is our first language in the womb and in the world, the sounds our babies hear when we tuck them in for the night, the prayerful lullabies of sorrow and hope we use to dispatch our loved ones from this world. Sometimes the music is mathematically structured and sometimes it is just the thrum of our world - the rhythmic beating of a heart, the whirrs and chirps of the insect world, the gentle warbling or harsh squawking of the birds, the whistling of the wind. There is music in the laughter of children and in their cries. There is music in the compressor of our HVAC system that filled the Cohen Sanctuary with a single note and single-digit temperatures during Rosh HaShanah.

But sometimes, as Leonard Cohen says, "it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift," a progression of chords and a melody line that highlights individual notes. In the music of our souls, the music of Western culture, those chords and those notes are a constant pattern of anticipation and realization, of desire and fulfillment, of tension and release. In essence, that is what music is all about, tension and release, tension and release. The secret chord that within you may respond to Bach or the Beatles, to Garth Brooks or Sara Bareilles, but that's all it is: tension and release, tension and release.

Forgive me for acknowledging just this once the sexuality of that sequence, tension and release. Those of you who know the blessings of sacred intimacy know how similarly satisfying it can be to be flooded with your own sacred resonance. It is mystifying, to be sure, which led Leonard Cohen to suggest that King David was baffled by this secret chord of his, and composed it and distilled it into four syllables: Hallelujah.

If you look in your reflections booklet at the bottom of page 26, you will see the chorus of this song. Its lyric is those four syllables, and it goes like this:

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Please sing it with me.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

The Book of Psalms is unique among the books of the Bible. Alone among the books, its authorship is human, even by the reckoning of the tradition. In fact, that tradition ascribes the authorship of the overwhelming majority of the psalms to the baffled composer, King David. The book expresses the joy and fear of the human experience, and it reflects a remarkable range of perspectives on God. The Psalms themselves are therefore all over the map, but they lead to a destination that distills the very nature of the endeavor to its essence. The last five of the 150 psalms begin and end with the exclamation hallelujah, and are narrower and narrower in their focus on the role music plays in the praise of God.

You know these psalms, even if you rarely come early to services. And you especially know the last psalm, number 150, which repeats the word "hallelu" over and over, repeats the object of hallelu as many times and lists the musical instruments, the wordless agents of praise, with which hallelu is effective. The trumpet of the shofar, the harp and the lyre - stringed instruments, the drum and timbrel, flute and violin, crashing cymbals, these, after all of the words, these are the vehicles of our call to God.

I have, to this point, left some words untranslated. What exactly is the meaning of "hallelu?" What exactly is the meaning of "hallelujah?"

At the root of "hallelu" is the notion of "praise." And without giving you a Hebrew grammar lesson, allow me to offer that word as translation, in sort of an enthusiastically encouraging mode, as the way to understand it. And the "yah" at the end of "hallelujah" is, it should be no surprise, the Sovereign of the Universe, Ruler of those who rule rulers, the Holy One of Blessed Name. "Yah" is much more concise. "Hallelujah" means, flatly, "praise the Lord." But it is a word that defies you to say it flatly.

Even if you did not know the meaning of "hallelu" you would derive it from Psalm 150. The trumpeting of the shofar! The soprano trill of the flute! The plucked and strummed and otherwise vibrated strings of the instruments! The beating of the drums and the crashing of the cymbals! When the words of 150 psalms have been used up, when King David, who Cohen tells us was both strong of faith and deep in doubt, had no poem left to compose, when the mountains and the oceans and the stars and the thunder had been invoked, hallelu could be expressed only with music.

Quite honestly, if the Book of Psalms ended one verse early,I would be standing here suggesting to you that our worship ought rightly consist of magnificent compositions performed by expert musicians on the harp and the lyre and the oboe and the bass and kettle drum and trombone and a swell of violins. Sorry. I know some of you had your hopes up. It is not someone else's music that is the point here.

Rather, it is the last line of the Psalm that is the summation of our yearning: kol han'shama t'hallel yah hallelujah, "Let everything that breathes praise God, hallelujah." The ultimate source of "hallelujah" is not the mitigated praise of the musician. It is the very breath you breathe. It is there that the secret chord that pleases your Creator is sounded. It praises in a chorus that is constant, backed up by the steady rhythm of your heart, accompanied by syncopated blinking of your eyes, the occasional emphasis of a swallow, the choreographed dance of your body from head to toe. And at least according to one man, this is how it sounds. Sing with me.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

I am struck by the absurdity of my endeavor tonight. Talking about the beauty and function of music is like giving your guests a picture of a hot-fudge sundae and calling it dessert. But I am not blessed with the exquisite talent of my dear friend and pulpit partner, so I have no choice but to use the gifts I have been given.

Where did this word come from, the word that is the distillation of our praise? It did not come from the Torah. Hallelujah does not appear anywhere in the five books. While the various forms of hallel appear scattered throughout the prophetic and wisdom literature, it is really only in Psalms that the verb appears in its many forms and the exclamation gains a certain prominence. While God appears to have no problem commanding us to love and honor and observe and even bless, it is only in the words that well up from within that hallelujah can be produced.

There is an apocryphal story about Gutzon Borglum, the American sculptor who created the faces on Mt. Rushmore. According to the various versions, he worked in his studio on a model for the head of Abraham Lincoln, and a woman was hired to tidy the room every day, cleaning up the dust and the chips that he chiseled and sanded away. One day she came in and saw the face of the President recognizable for the first time, and she let out a scream. "Mr. Borglum," she said. "How did you know Mr. Lincoln was inside that stone?"

We might well ask the same question of the psalmist. How did he know that the quintessential word of praise and gratitude was in his soul? How could he invent this exclamation that not only perfectly captured his own secret chord, but became the universally accepted shout of joy and praise by his descendants?

I would like to think that some of the answer is in something we know of primal music. We Jews of European descent have learned to yai-bai-bai and hai-didi-dai, but those of you who come from Mediterranean and Middle East stock are native ululators. I would demonstrate for you if I could, but I can't, so I have arranged a brief demonstration from Elisheva. This shout of exultation is older than language and survives as part of Sephardic and Oriental Jewish culture. Were I to spell that sound for you, were I to transcribe the music, it would most certainly come out as some version of hallelu.

Yet it is not the case that this unbridled expression of joy is, in and of itself, sufficient to capture what makes it a spiritual expression. Only by adding the name of God do we elevate an emotional outburst to a prayer. If I can imagine the origin of "hallelu," then I can also imagine the controversy caused by including the sacred name of the Holy One. While it is true that our distant ancestors were far more liberal with the names they knew for the Sovereign of the Universe, the proper names, they were also cautioned by no less a source than the Ten Commandments not to use that name in any but a serious and sacred context.

Leonard Cohen expresses the tension - "you say I took the Name in vain; I don't even know the name." And he leaps ahead thousands of years when he asserts what is given knowledge in Kabbalah: "there's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah."

Within us is music that needs to emerge, just as Mr. Lincoln had to come out of that rock for Gutzon Borglum. It is our task to extract it, to hear its meaning that is encased in the words, and to allow the blaze of light to ignite our souls. I am certain that few of you exclaim the holy or the broken Hallelujah outside of rooms just like these, but cultivating a consciousness that our lives are songs to God is the entire purpose of the Book of Psalms.

What makes the endeavor of sanctified music so important is the community it enables. The songs of your heart and soul may be personally satisfying, but the songs we share in these precincts, the music that resonates not just for one or for a few but for all of us can often be the very essence of our experience together. Let me give you an example from this very evening. The words that opened this evening's worship mean nothing to you - "all the vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, obligations, pledge and promises that we vow or promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next, may it come to us for good, we hereby retract." We make this declaration before our Torah scrolls, with the chutzpah to claim they constitute both a heavenly court and an earthly court.

You did not rush to be here tonight to be released from your religious oaths. We did not open and close our doors for latecomers twice so that they could put in a court appearance. We do not preserve this vestige of a thousand years ago, opposed by our Babylonian forebears, because its words are holy to us. The words are broken. The music is holy. The soulful chant contains the blaze of light that kindles our connection to each other and persuades us - correctly - that we have offered personal and collective praise, personal and collectively loyalty, personal and collective piety on the holiest night of the year, the day when the courts are closed and the only business is the mending of our broken lives.

It doesn't matter which you heard - it all means hallelujah. Once more with me, please.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

The pillar that sits to the farthest right on the bima is a representation of the role of music in the life of our congregation. Except for a small group of you, the details are lost, so we have reproduced the paper-cut that adorns it on the back of your reflections booklet. That pillar has been partially dedicated by David and Deborah Yaffe, who are tonight in California waiting for us to send Yom Kippur in their direction. We also send our thanks for their generosity.

It is correct that among the things on which this congregation rests is music. It has not always been so, a history I don't need to rehearse, but thanks to the foundation laid by our first full-time Hazzan, Ramon Tasat, and the elaborate palace built by the voice and wisdom of the world's best Hazzan, Elisheva Dienstfrey, you know that on any given Shabbat or festival your heart can be both broken and mended by the power of music, and that those in our congregation of any age and talent are invited to sound their own secret chord.

It is also correct that we struggle with how to express the role of music in our congregational life. The pillar, like my words, can only evoke our musical aspirations. Descriptions, representations, explanations, notations - they are, in the end inadequate. They cannot reproduce that which only the soul can appreciate.

You understand what Leonard Cohen wrote when he employed rhythm and rhyme and a very gentle double entendre and included this lyric: I did my best, it wasn't much. I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch." He could be describing your experience here during these days of sitting and reading. For most of you, the words are impenetrable. Even if you understand them, they fly past you without time to consider their import. Leon Wieseltier describes davvenen, the endeavor of Jewish prayer, as saying important things much too fast. Maybe that's why we repeat them so much, why we switch back and forth, publicly or privately, between Hebrew and English, why we cherish the innovative reading or prayer that shakes us out of a literary trance. We so desperately want to feel our contrition. We want to feel our devotion. We want to feel our forgiveness. We do our best, but the words too often do not penetrate to the level of feeling. We settle for a touch.

But music has redeeming power where words fail. The swell of your voices singing the refrain between the incomprehensible sins of the Vidui - ai ai yai yai. -- says everything it needs to even if ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi are merely syllables you repeat on cue. Music can do that because, unlike prayer, which is a learned activity, music is organic. It lives deep inside and rides on every breath, the breath of every living thing.

My friend Rabbi Danny Zemel shared a teaching with me this week from a friend of his. The friend said, "In the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, I prefer Shammai. Shammai's name comes from shemah, which means `perhaps.' Shammai comes to consider the alternatives, to elevate the level of intellectual pursuit." I love that little teaching, and I will use it many times, I am sure.

But I also don't want to lose the fact that in the overwhelming majority of cases, Jewish law favors the other rabbi - Hillel. Hillel's name is from the same root as hallelu. The joy and compassion and inclusiveness so often associated with Hillel are what flow from that secret chord. Hillel's faith in God is a song. Hillel - God. Hallelu - Yah.

The last lyrics in Leonard Cohen's song are typical of his insight and hubris. He is a man who struggled with faith and identity all his life - from his Jewish day school education to his avocation as a Buddhist monk. "Even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue by Hallelujah." In the end, all we can offer is our lives as testimony to our time on earth. And from the beginning, with every breath we have offered this music of praise. If it is the destination of 150 psalms, it is the destination of 120 years.

Perhaps in his learning Cohen encountered a teaching from R. Abahu quoted in the collection Sh'mot Rabbah, Exodus Rabbah (23:2). He brought a deliberate misreading of the verse that introduces the song sung by the Israelites when they had left Egypt, on the far side of the sea. Vaya'aminu baH' uv'moshe avdo az yashir - They had faith in God and in Moses, God's servant, then they sang. R. Abahu suggested that until they had faith, they could not sing.

Taking advantage of the chutzpah of both authors, allow me to suggest that music is the evidence of your faith as well. If you had no faith, you would not be able to sing. And so if you can sing, it is the testimony to the resonance of the secret chord, the song of praise that rides the rhythm of your breathing, the blaze of light released from your every word, the power of your prayer, broken or holy. So I ask you to stand before the Lord of song so that we can send you out into this most sacred of nights with nothing on your tongue but Hallelujah.

(Congregation is led in Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah")

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