My Cover of Natalie Young’s “Adonai Sefatai”

Listen to my cover of Natalie Young’s “Adonai Sefatai,” from Standing On The Shoulders

Standing On The Shoulders, the second album from Cantor Natalie Young, offers spiritual and musical refreshment for ears and souls weary of juvenile and derivative efforts from contemporary songwriters. Cantor Young is a trained composer and her innate musicianship, combined with her deep understanding of the texts creates a collection of liturgical pieces that sound both complex and harmonically pleasing.

The mantra-like, “Adonai Sefatai,” a preparatory prayer that is often recited as a whisper, is handled with sensitivity by Young. The use of eastern instruments, often employed as a sort of gimmick by some artists, sounds quite authentic in support of the harmonic progressions of this piece. Young’s voice conveys devotion and purity.

“Halleluya,” a setting of Psalm 150, is reminiscent of a pop anthem, with appropriate instrumentation and rich harmonies. The melody line is easy to join in, and it seems destined to become a synagogue repertoire staple.

It is a pleasure to finally hear music for synagogue that sounds both youthful and sophisticated!

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You can purchase Cantor Young’s Music here

Cantor Judith Ovadia, 2014

The Rock, Whose Work Is Perfect; For All His Ways Are Just

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I had the honor of delivering this D’var Torah before my distinguished colleagues at the Portland Convention of the American Conference of Cantors, June 25, 2012

You can listen here:  

Theodore Roosevelt, quoting a West African proverb, once said, “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.  You’ll go far.”

In Parashat Chukkat, God instructs Moses to adopt this “Big-stick” policy in response to the Israelites demand for water in the wilderness of Zin, after the death of Miriam.

God says, “‘Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so shall you give the congregation and their cattle drink.’  And Moses took the rod from before the Eternal, as God commanded him.” (Num. 20:8-9)

Yet, instead of speaking to the rock as God ordered him to do, Moses goes “off script” and addresses the crowd, saying, In Numbers 20:10, “Listen up, you rebels; should we bring you forth water out of this rock?’  And Moses lifted up his hand, (chant) “Vayack et hasela” and struck the rock with his rod twice; and water gushed forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, as did their cattle. And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’” (Num. 20:10-12).

Students and scholars have asked why the punishment for Moses’ transgression, especially in light of all his good deeds, was so severe. They contrast this episode with others, particularly one that occurs early on in the Exodus, at a place called Rephidim, where God instructs Moses to strike a rock to get water.  Apparently, there is a time for striking the rock and a time for speaking to the rock. God has made everything beautiful in its time.

One remez, one clue I find in the parsha, is the prominent role of the Matteh, the staff. Moses’ staff has an interesting history and legend behind it.      The story of Moses’ miraculous birth and rebirth is very well known. Exodus Chapter 2 jumps from him being named Moshe —  “because I drew him from the water,” to “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brothers.  And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he struck the Egyptian, (chant) “Vayack et hamitzri,” and hid him in the sand.”

So the first thing Moses does once he grows up is kill someone. Crime of passion? Maybe. Interesting that the phrase is the same – Vayack – he struck the Egyptian — as is later used to describe the action at Meriba – “Vayack et haselah” – he struck the rock.”

Skipping ahead to the part with the burning bush, we learn that God tells Moses to cast down the staff in his hand, which then becomes a snake. Moses is frightened and flees from it. God tells him to take the serpent into his hand by the tail. He does and it becomes the rod – ha matteh — again. The Matteh, the staff or rod of Moses, appears again and again in the Torah from this point on. Sources describe this staff as having many magical attributes, such as having been forged from sapphire; weighing more than is humanly possible to lift. It is powerful stuff, what Dumbledore would call “Very Old Magic.”

At God’s command, Moses takes his staff and “makeh bamatteh” –strikes– the Nile with it to execute the first Plague, blood, and many subsequent plagues are launched with both Aaron’s rod and Moses’ staff. Most significant, two more instances occur when Moses employs the staff to enact God’s miracle through water.  The first is the parting of the Red Sea, when the Israelites are being pursued by the Egyptians and they reach the shore, they turn on Moses crying, “Because there were no graves in Egypt have you taken us away to die in the wilderness?  It would have been better to stay in service to the Egyptians than to die here.”

And Moses answers, confidently, in complete faith, as he comes into his moment of leadership, “al tira’u, hityatzvu ur’u et y’shuat Adonai. “Fear not, stand still. And see the salvation of Adonai. He will fight for you, just be calm.”

And what is God’s response to this zen-ful moment of ultimate faith?

“What the heck are you crying to me for?  Raise your staff and stretch your hand over the sea and divide it and the children of Israel will cross in the middle of the sea on dry land.”

There is a time to stand still and a time to get moving.  This is the time for action, not prayer.

Soon after, at the encampment in Rephidim, the people turn on Moses for lack of water. Moses tells God, “What shall I do to these people?  They are ready to stone me?”  And God instructs Moses to take his staff, specifically, the “One you struck the Nile river with, and pass through the people, and I will stand before you on the Rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it and the people will drink.”

This comes to pass, and the place is referred to, also as Meribah, the place of strife. And Amalek comes out and attacks, as Amalek is wont to do anytime Israel is alienated from God.

So why is it right for Moses to hit the rock at Rephidim but wrong to do it at Kadesh?  Let’s put aside the obvious point, that God commands him to strike in the first instance and speak in the second, and look into the reason why striking is called for in one case but not the other.

Moses’ staff is a scepter, a tool, a weapon, and a sign of his unabated vigor. It transforms into the primal serpent – from the garden of Eden. This symbol of unrestrained sexual urge and enticement to knowledge, carnal and supernal, can be seen as both useful and destructive. In the episode at Rephidim, in the face of a real mutinous threat, God encourages Moses to strut before the community in a display of force, carrying the staff on parade, accompanied by the elders of the group. There, the instruction is to strike the rock and draw forth water. This is unequivocal.  Moses needs the Israelites to believe in his power to lead. This power, in turn, must be displayed in a way that is understood by the congregation.  Thus, the big stick.

The incident at Kadesh occurs almost forty years after the one at Rephidim. The experience the Israelites had of God and of Moses was completely different by this time. It is more in line with God’s vision for Moses’ leadership that he speak words to the rock and draw water thus instead of hitting it as he had years before. There is no need for Moses to thrust his staff violently to procure the water.  Indeed, the idea of the geriatric Moses shouting and waving the rod inspires a sort of pity rather than admiration. It is far more seemly for a man of Moses’ station and experience to speak softly to the rock and allow the miracle to impress by itself.  In doing so, the glory would have gone to God because all would see it to be a supernatural event, and as Rashi points out, the assembly would be instructed because, if a non-sentient object such as a rock obeys the words of God, how much the more so should those capable of thought and listening heed God’s command. Moses’ leadership would be sound and his service to God untarnished.  The idea behind having the big stick is you don’t have to use it, just show it off now and then. There is a time for diplomacy and a time for a show of force.

So how is it that this Eved Ne’eman, this faithful servant of the Lord, is has his record stained with the sin of breaking faith with God?  By not understanding what the moment called for. It was a moment to yield the floor to the eternal. To demonstrate the Divine plan in creation and give glory to the creator. Hitting the rock with the staff not only displays bad temper and loss of control, it usurps God’s glory and might.  “Shall we get water for you?” asks Moses, as if he truly were the power behind the miracle. This is an echo of the breach of faith he displayed in the parashah three weeks ago, Beha’alotecha, when he dared wonder aloud, “Where am I to get meat to give to all these people?” Suddenly Moses reveals he is thinking of himself as if he were on a level with God. It is not for Moses to procure meat, nor is it he who will actually draw the water from the rock. The recurrent theme of the Torah is that God is ultimately and absolutely in control of such events.

The commentator Yeshayahu Leibovitz points out that Moses’ punishment, according to Midrash, is for another reason altogether: because he was the leader of the generation of the wilderness, those whose faithlessness cost them the right to enter the Promised Land. Only Joshua and Caleb were spared this punishment, as a reward for speaking righteously in the incident of the spies. Moses’ situation was, in effect, as Leibovitz writes, “. . .analogous to a shepherd whose flock was torn to shreds by wild animals – can he then say: “I’m going home now”? The leader has a share in the sins of his generation, for the sins which were committed under his leadership, even if he himself is not – either legally or morally or by any other human criterion – responsible for the sins, the omissions, or the errors of those under him. Yet, he has a share in their sins.” (Leibovitz, Notes and Remarks On The Weekly Parshah, 148.)

In Deuteronomy 3:23 Moses recounts how he implores God to reconsider the sentence, to allow him to cross over into the Promised Land, an old friend calling up one last favor — But God answers, “Rav-Lach.  Genug. It is enough.”

However, Moses is effective in getting God to allow him to at least see the Promised Land from the top of Pisgah. This part of his prayer is answered, and from this Rabbi Eleazar in the Talmud deduced that prayer is more effective than good deeds because no one had more good deeds than Moses and it was only after he prayed that God allowed him to see the Promised Land.

There is a to act and a time to pray.

All of these explanations are fundamentally unsatisfying. Moses was God’s man. It seems unfair, cruel, even, that he should put up with so much, struggle so hard, just to fall short of the finish line.

However, perhaps this seemingly tragic ending to Moses-the-hero’s story is not what it appears to be. Moses’ story has to end somewhere. And he is truly of the desert generation, although he did not sin as they did. There is a Midrash that suggests that the sentence passed against Moses was to save his face, that future generations would not lump him in with those who did not enter the Promised Land because of their iniquity. That is why the Torah tells us God said, “Because you did not believe in Me therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” in order to assign a cover story as to why Moses (and Aaron) were excluded from crossing over. But the real reason is because the next chapter has to begin, and that chapter has a name, and that name is Joshua. Joshua demonstrates the ascendancy of his leadership and zeal for God at the same time that Moses’ methods, useful in the first part of the Exodus, are now proving problematic. Joshua is the new blood and Moses is the old guard. He has to die so that Joshua can embody his role fully. And he has to die because it is his time. Not even Moses, beloved friend, confidante of God, can live forever.

There is a time to live and a time to die.

Each of us must wend our way through the wilderness. Each of us must yearn for, seek out, and travel to the Promised Land. We treasure the moments of exaltation and grace that occur along the way. We grieve the losses and the bitterness and the pain. But do we ever arrive? Is it possible to arrive?

Deuteronomy Rabba depicts an exchange between Moses and God.

Moses said to the Holy One, blessed be He:

“Master of the Universe, clear and known to you is the labor and pain I endured that Israel might come to believe in Your name.

How much pain I suffered until I established the Torah and commandments in them.

I said to myself, as I have known their distress so shall I know their good days.

And now that the good days of Israel have come, you say to me:

“Thou shalt not go over this Jordan”

Behold, you are making a fraud of your Torah.

For it is written of the laborer:

“In the same day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it, for he is poor and sets his heart upon it.”

Is this the reward for the forty years I have labored that they might become a holy and faithful people?

God said to him:

“Let it suffice.”

Moses said to Him:

Master of the universe, if you will not take me into the land of Israel,

Let me stay on like the beasts of the field who eat grass and drink water, and live and enjoy the world.

So let my soul be as one of them.

God said to him:

“Let it suffice.”

Moses said to Him:

Master of the universe, and if not that,

Then let me stay on in this world as a bird that flies to the four winds of the earth, and daily gathers its food, and returns to its nest in the evening.

Let my soul be as one of them.

God said to him:

“Let it suffice.”

When Moses saw that no creature could save him from the way of death,

At that very moment he said:

“Hatzur tamim po’olo.  The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are just.”

 

 

Run to do a Mitzvah!

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Pirkei Avot teaches us that, according to Ben Azzai, one must “run to perform even a minor mitzvah.” (Avot 4:2).  Actually, it is impossible to measure the impact of our deeds. What may seem a small gesture on our part may have a tremendous effect on the life of another.

Take the mitzvah of Bikkur Holim for example. Bikkur Holim is hardly a minor mitzvah, however, it doesn’t take too much effort to stop by the home or hospital room of someone who is sick or recovering from illness or surgery and bring cheer. Yet many people find themselves avoiding their friends and loved ones when they need them the most because they have complicated emotions about illness or perhaps they are unsure how to behave around the sick.

Here is a link to an article I wrote on the subject that I hope you will find useful.