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 שופרות הלב: Opening the Heart for High Holidays with Rabbi Caine

Jewish Tradition teaches us that one cannot just show up to High Holiday services expecting to experience the services' possibilities and personal change.  Rather, one must prepare oneself to be ready to have authentic emotions and thoughts accompany the cantor's singing and the words that you say.  Otherwise the shofar is just a sound.  The problem isn't that you don't understand Hebrew, the problem is that you don't understand yourself.

Why a cd of songs for High Holidays? We live in a world of emotional numbness and hashtag sentiment.  We have to be “strong” to get by.  But High Holidays are all about breaking your heart before God.  The shofar blast (the cry of brokenness), Avinu Malkeinu, teshuvah, Yizkor, beating our chests, they are less about words then they are about breaking open our hearts to God and feeling the emotions that flood in when we allow ourselves to feel:  feel our shortcomings, feel our blessings in the present moment, feel our losses, feel our possibilities, feel our powerlessness and our power, and by breaking ourselves open we invite the “still, small voice” of God.  The crescendo is Shema Koleinu, as Sharna leads us in, “Adonai, HEAR OUR VOICES!”

Some of the Talmudic rabbis suggested that God hears the thoughts and emotions of our prayers, not the words that come out of our mouths that accompany those thoughts and emotions.  I think they were right.   Music and songs help me to break open my heart, lower my defenses, feel what I normally eclipse, and prepare for journey that the service invites us to take.

These are songs I use to prepare my kavanah (mental state) for the Days of Awe. I hope they help you, or encourage you to make and share your own.
Please pass this along to Jews of the younger generation!  After the track listing, I have a link to each song AND a personal commentary on each song.

 1.  Elohai Neshama (Traditional Morning Prayers, perf. by Alma)
 2.  Feel It All (KT Tunstall)
 3.  Seek Up (Dave Matthews)
 4.  Streets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen)
 5.  Supermen (Jim Infantino)
 6.  9 Crimes (Damien Rice)
 7.  The Big Ship (Brian Eno)
 8.  Farmer Chords (Ben Gibbard)
 9.  Who Woulda' Thunk It (Greg Brown)
 10.  'Cept You and Me, Babe (Greg Brown)
 11.  Death Don't Have No Mercy (Rev. Gary Davis)
 12.  Fare Thee Well (Isaac/Mumford)
 13.  Long Black Veil (Traditional, perf. by Dave Matthews & Emmylou Harris)
 14.  Rhubarb (Aphex Twin)
 15.  Long Shadow (Joe Strummer)
 16.  Ordinary Love (U2)
 17.  Knockin' on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan, perf. by Jerry Garcia & Dave Grisman)
 18.  Psalm 99 (sung by Kol Zimrah)
 19.  Psalm 150 (sung by Erez Yechiel)
 20.  I Will Be Light (Matisyahu)

21.   Society (Eddie Vedder) Society (Eddie Vedder)  and 22.  Trying to Leave Something Behind (Sean Rowe)

Elohai Neshama (Traditional):  Many Jews think of the “waking up” prayer as “Modeh Ani.” Woefully neglected is the prayer for which Modeh Ani serves as the introduction: Elohai Neshama.  “My God, the soul you placed in me, is pure....”  The words evoke a central theme of Holidays:  our soul, a piece of God that connects us to everything else in the God plane, is pure, but since there is no way to live in the finite world perfectly, our lives are doomed to imperfection, to cheit, to missing the mark.  In an infinite world we could call our mothers regularly, and finish that extra work we owe our customers, and reassure our colleague, and spend more time with our families, and mind-read the needs of those around us.  In the real world, there's not enough time and not enough insight.  We all commit cheit, letting down others, God, and ourselves.  Rather than wallow in our imperfections, however, we connect with our true nature, that of our purity, our peace of God naturally drawn to want to do all things good, and it is from that place that we are ready to stand before God on Rosh Hashanah, do the confessional prayers on Yom Kippur, and let our good souls and intentions guide us back to walking in God's ways.

Feel it All (KT Tunstall): A central theme of High Holidays is compassion.  When we open the ark and sing “Adonai Adonai El Rachum v'Chanun” (Adonai, God, source of Compassion and Graciousness) so loud the walls shake, we are celebrating the channeling of compassion.  How is compassion different from empathy?  Empathy is feeling what one other is feeling; compassion is feeling what everything is feeling.  God is El Rachum because God felt the pain of all the Israelites crying out, of all the exploited of the world crying out, etc. all at once, and then turning as an eagle to bear them to freedom.  The image of the eagle is a rare animal image we have for God, as God tells the Israelites that He was the one who “bore them on eagle's wings” our of Egypt; and we pray in the El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer “God full of Compassion” that we all find a place “under the wings of His sheltering presence.”   This is what the Yom Kippur Haftarah is about as well, as the anonymous prophet rails that the meaning of the holiday is to feel the pain of all the disenfranchised.  As Abraham Joshua Heschel explained, the Jewish concept of a prophet is one who feels what God is feeling, and puts it into words. When we emulate God, we rise to the spiritual sensitivity to “feel at all” --as hard as it can be to be so emotionally sensitive-- and we see the eagle above us, and we becoming giving selves.  “So take what you want, leave what you don't need...”

Seek  Up (Dave Matthews) - Before we make Teshuvah (repentance), we identify our blockages to God, to “feeling it all.”  Dave Matthews starts with the way “life is a struggle between what we see and what we do” between our desire to feel the need around us and to serve God in meeting it, and our going about our lives instead.  Do we become paralysed by allowing the ego to convince us that we are not able to do more?  Do we watch the hungry child on tv, “for the price of a coke or smoke we could keep alive those hungry eyes,” but then just give up, or fall into self-introspective uselessness?  Matthews warns that it's not about whether we selfishly ruminate on our guilt or on our innocence, it's about the fact that if we do nothing, eventually “we will all be swept away,” as the prophets warn of our inaction.  Or we outsource the world's problems to “some big monster for him to fight your wars for you” but then are shocked when “he finds his way to you” and “it's the devil” you empowered.  Finally, Matthews encapsulates perhaps the primary the theme of Rosh Hashanah:  acquiring material wealth and worldly success does not solve the universal judgment of mortality:  only leaving the world a better place than when you found it.

Streets of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen) -In my 30's I became extremely close with a friend dying of AIDS.  Adding to his “invisibility” in our world was that he was black, gay, poor, and abandoned by his family.  He was a huge influence on my life. Our gay friends and relatives have made us all better people. They have suffered too much, and deserve our unconditional love, respect, and protection.  This song reminds me not only of my hometown of Philadelphia but also of the movie that called us to the simple kindness of one human to another.

Supermen (Jim Infantino) - Few songs bring back the joy of childhood and family to me like this one.  As I've created my own family and community, I haven't stayed as close with my brothers as I might have.  The song reminds me of where I came from, the love that was lavished upon me by a God who makes these moments of connection possible.

9 Crimes (Damien Rice) - Teshuvah does not mean making lofty resolutions about things that are supererogatory (over and beyond your moral duties), it involves feeling some shame that you are not presently fulfilling the moral duties God has placed as your path.  It's about feeling shame that you speak to a loved one with a raised voice, or take long showers that waste water, or don't care for the body God gave you, or share more of your bounty with those less fortunate, or check your phone when you should be listening to another.  None of those are excusably “normal” so you shouldn't rationalize that it would be “extra good” to rectify them.  “9 Crimes” expresses that moment when you realize what you're doing is actually wrong, inexcusable, and not the “real you” God intends.  In its simple lyrics, we hear of a man flirting with someone not his wife, but when it seems like it's too late to stop, recognizing that it's never too late to turn back (teshuvah), so he asks her “would it be alright with you” if he simply walked away.   

The Big Ship (Brian Eno)- The poet Jimenez wrote that our greatest moments of transition happen not with a loud sound but rather “like a boat that has struck something down deep in the depths, and only silence” we hear.  This is one of my favorite pieces for feeling my way (in a silent Amidah) toward where my deep transitions are happening.

Farmer Chords (Ben Gibbard) - Torah declares that there should be no servitude on this earth, and yet our egos create it even when circumstances do not.  How do we create spiritual equality between ourselves and our closest loved ones?  I gave a whole sermon on this song, which can be viewed at:

“Who Woulda' Thunk it” (Greg Brown) - Judaism is a religion that fully embraces the image of the wise elder.  While other traditions obsessed over the notion that the Garden of Eden story must be about sinning against God, our humane and insightful sages saw it as a story about the human race growing up, the inevitable transition from childish innocence to adult responsibility and eventual wisdom.  While I don't long for the innocence of childhood, I do sometimes refuse to see how I am growing into maturity and wisdom, because my lazy ego wants to see my present self as a past, youthful self.  I see myself as the young man who backpacked into remote areas that had never seen a white man, who stayed up late drinking bottles of  wine with cultured friends and acquaintances (so convinced were we that we knew everything already), who lived in a handmade shack in the woodlands outside San Francisco.  But to see myself as a past self is not authentic:  if we look in the mirror and see our past shadow staring back at us, we are not seeing our present self, the one God is seeing, the one God is inviting into wisdom and maturity and the opportunities today (regardless of balding, grey hair, ailments), not the triumphs of the past.  We can't make teshuvah, turning toward the path of walking with God now, if we think we're still on a past path, many exits down a highway we've already travelled

'Cept You and Me Babe (Greg Brown) - I often feel that the family Lynne and I are creating each day is “us against the world.”  We feel much of what others' value is not what we value.  In Judaism, this is called created a family name: that your last name broadcasts to others who you are as a family, what your values are.  But Greg Brown ends on a plaintive, wistful, and honest note:  right when judging others, he realizes he has not been fully honest in his own relationship.  “We always tell the truth.... 'Cept you and me, Babe” – teshuvah is always about oneself, about “we,” not about “them.”

Death Don't Have No Mercy  (Reverend Gary Davis) - The images of the Book of Life (and the Book of Death) and of dressing in white burial shrouds (though also angels' garments of light) on Yom Kippur is a reminder to us all that mortality is part of the laws of the universe.  There's no celebrating the gift of life and the possible blessings of human existence without being willing to also feel the reality of mortality.  This song has always spoken to me, and it now does even more that I learned it is a favorite of Leo Jassy's as well.

Fare Thee Well (Isaac/Mumford) - This song also makes me think of the High Holiday central theme of inevitable mortality and our reaction to it (Escape? Fear? Honor? Peace?).  It also connects me to Yizkor, and to our beloved Ted Abel z”l, whom we lost too soon, and at whose memorial I played this song.

Long Black Veil (Trad., played by Dave Matthews and Emmylou Harris) Near the end of the Torah, God tells us:  “The revealed things [niglot] are for all you, the hidden things [nistarot] are for Adonai Your God.”   As Sharna is chanting the special liturgy of each of us crying out to God in silent prayer about things no one else knows, that we want God to know, that we want God to accept and then turn toward us bestowing a much needed grace, the things we live with that “nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me,” I look around at others' davening and I hope they are sharing their hidden things with God, seeking forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.  This song reminds me of that.

Rhubarb (Aphex Twin) - I have prayed to this more times than I can count.

Long Shadow (Joe Strummer) - Well, I'll tell you one thing that I know: You don't face your demons down, You got to grab 'em and pin 'em to the ground.  The Devil may care and maybe God He won't, but better make sure, you check on the 'Dos' and the 'Don'ts.'  Crawl up the mountain to reach where the eagles fly; sure you can glimpse from the mountaintop, where the soul of the muse might rise.  Then one day, I could tell my tracks by the holes in the soles of my shoes....  And falling in the garden, of days so long ago,somewhere in the memory, the sun shines on you.  

Ordinary Love (U2) - “We can't fall any further, if we can't feel ordinary love. And we cannot reach any higher, if we can't deal with ordinary love.”  We are not a religion that has saints as our ideal.  Even the most elevated among us, whether Moses or Rabbi Akiva, has their shortcomings, especially whether they gave their spouses enough time and support.  The frame of High Holidays is that there is no way to live a perfect life in a world of finite time and finite knowledge.  And so teshuvah is a reminder to all of us to return to the ways of ordinary love so we can feel higher love.  We don't leave people behind to connect to God:  that is our fundamental dictum.  We can't reach any higher if we can't deal with ordinary love.”

Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan, perf. By Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman) -That's what Sharna is doing with us on High Holidays.

Psalm 99 - It is my dream that once a month we might have a Friday night service where we have thirty or so of us all singing at the top of our lungs the words of Biblical poetry, as is common in Jerusalem and independent minyanim.  This is one example, and appropriate for the Rosh Hashanah image of God as King, though I translate melekh as “Ruler” since the idea is that the universe operates according to God's laws).  “The power of the divine Ruler derives from loving justice.  You invented mishpat (justice) and tsedakah (right action).” 

Erez Yechiel: Psalm 150.  Psalm 150, the final Psalm, is not only sung at every morning service, but is also featured on Rosh HaShanah during the Shofarot verses of Musaf:  Praise Adonai with a blast of the shofar, with [musical instruments], with drums and dance... Let every soul-breath praise Adonai!”

I Will  Be Light (Matisyahu) -When God looks at us, God does not see each of us in our separate bodies, disconnected from each other and from God.  Instead God sees us as our true selves, as Light, as a fragment of God energy interconnected with all God energies in each other and the universe in a vast interconnected network.  In our liturgy, this is phrased by the great triple pun of “'or” (ayin-vav-reish), skin, “or” (alef-vav-reish), light, and “'or” (the root of Torah, silent yod-vav-reish).  On Yom Kippur, we don't wear leather (skin), we wear white (light) and embrace Torah.  We are not bodies and individuals, we are pure souls, pure light, like angels.  We are made for God's instruction.

Mon, February 19 2018 4 Adar 5778