Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171
This article is not about me.
It’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.
This article is not about the time I found my voice. I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire. I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me. Everyone – including me – burst into laughter. I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.
Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant. I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant. But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.
It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services. The head of my yeshiva was old-school: imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation. My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.
It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays. A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors. Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.
This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.
This is what it’s about: two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.
* * *
The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim. Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience. After all, I could do so much better myself.
Until I couldn’t. During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader. And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.
What is a congregation? Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart? And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?
The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture. But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces. By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary. But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.
Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?
This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation. Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it? Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.
Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.
In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people. And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.
Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people? Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives? We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues. But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.
But she does not remain alone. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d. Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?
Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations? Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?
Is this Naomi? gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered. But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.
And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi! This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.
Each a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.
I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers. But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.