Azamra: Doing Our Best - (Nov 2010)

However successful we may be (or appear to be)-  there are always times when we fail to do what we aspire to do. We often fail to approach “perfection” let alone attain it. We may also fail because we do not have the abilities or skills we wish we had. But failure and disability are not always what they seem and if we have done our very best in the spiritual life, it really is not just “second best”. In the contemplative life, our intention and our effort are more important than all else. Being able to see the potential of whatever we are blessed with (and making the best use of it) is the greatest gift we can be given.

One of the favourite expressions of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was “I will sing to God with the little I have left”. It is actually a psalm text (Psalm146:2) You can read his interpretation of that text in Likutei Moharan 1:282 but I can tell you what the phrase meant to me at the turn of the millennium. Those who have visited this website before will be aware that I had been a Discalced Carmelite friar before my conversion to Judaism. I was very young when I entered the Carmelites and in many ways not ready to take on the yoke of a dedicated life. It came as a great surprise to me some thirty years later that I should be seeking to shoulder that yoke again.

I had, just then, finally begun to realise that my encroaching deafness was such that I could no longer realistically carry on being a musician. I had been a school music teacher for twenty years and that realisation took some getting used to. It actually took me four years, but I am well over it now and see the whole development as providential ... for if it had not happened I might not have re-discovered my vocation by deciding to live as a “DJC” (Dedicated Jewish Contemplative). The song I needed to sing was an internal one. We all have such a song written in the notation of our genes--and each person has their own melody--though it can take a lifetime to discover it.

During the process of return (teshuvah) which I have just described, and to express it ....I resurrected an old composition I had written setting the text of Azamra in conjunction with a poem written by a child during the holocaust. Its message was one of unquenchable optimism and a determination to make the most of things. It was originally part of a much longer work called "Adon Olam",but this particular song from that set of musical reflections  needed a little more work as I was not happy with the closing bars.  In the first version, the song ended wistfully, in this new 2009 version I added a much more "elevating" and affirmative end -section (beginning bar 45) in  the spirit of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.... that seemed appropriate as I had revised it as a “thank you” present to Rabbi Dovid Sears, a Breslover Rabbi in Brooklyn, who has encouraged me greatly in my work as a contemplative. I am sharing it more widely here today. Here is the score:

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(Notes: The musical reference to the klezmer song “Spieltshe mir a liedele” is deliberate.  The work has yet to be performed:- I am totally flexible with regard to instrumentation, but would always recommend that the melody is sung by a child and not an adult. Metronome marks are just guidelines and may be over-ridden.)

The “Azamra verse” popped into my head again while I was writing this week’s Hegyon ha-Lev (lectio divina) commentary on our Community’s private website.   In Malachi chapter 1 (Haftaras Toldos), we read of a scathing criticism of the Levites and Priests in the temple. Their dedicated service had become half-hearted and superficial.  In Malachi 1:13 the priestly acedia (religious boredom) had caused them to exclaim: “Hinei ma’t’laah” which I would translate as “Sheesh, this is a pain”.  All of us are capable of the same lack of gratitude for the contemplative calling and the same lackadaisical attitude in our prayers.

The Torah text of Parshas Toldos says:

“And he built an altar there and called on the Name of the Lord and pitched his tent there, and there Isaac’s servants dug him a well”

Each of those steps can be seen as a process in our contemplative horarium.

We build an altar when we prepare for the time of prayer by acts of tzedekah, by religious study, and even by the simple but intentional act of setting time aside on a daily or weekly basis for acts of worship and prayer.

We call on the Lord when we are engaged in the daily and Shabbat liturgy, when we are in our regular periods of hisbodedus or hisbonenus....the prayer of informal dialogue and the prayer of contemplative attention. Remembering the admonitions of the Malachi haftarah, we ought not to neglect such prayer if we are “not in the mood”. Instead we ought to remember that

“tov me’at tachanunim bekavana mei’harbei shelo bekavannah”
(better to say fewer words of prayer with proper focus than many words with no focus at all).

This phrase from Orach Chayim 1:4 is applicable to all times, even when we are so depressed and devoid of any joy that the most we can do is to make a brief but sincere apology our only prayer. God sees the heart.

We pitch our tent when we remember that the present moment and location is all we truly have. When we do not allow ourselves to be deceived that our “reward” or the “solution to our problems” is in the future. To be satisfied with what we have and see that our task is to make full use of it now and not tomorrow. In other words, “pitching our tent” is achieved by three things:  mindfulness of the present (faith), equanimity in the present (trust), and creativity in the present (love). Not tomorrow. Now.

If we do our best to practice those three things, we may well find that they have become, as it were, our “servants”. If we have prepared well, prayed with all our hearts, and settled ourselves with equanimity, these three “servants” will have dug the well for us. They will have reached the Living Waters and made it unnecessary for us to fret about ever reaching them by any additional exertions of our own.

In Malachi 2:5 we read:

“My covenant of life and peace was with him (Levi)
And I gave them both to him,
And also Awe and he feared me.”

If we have honoured God in our preparation for prayer, and if we intend to offer our prayers in sincere gratitude as korbanot we will be undertaking our religious duties with Awe.

If we attempt to put our whole being into the act of prayer..especially when we feel no emotional or spiritual reward, we will have created Life ...which nine times out of ten will increase our feeling of zeal and dedication of its own accord.

The sense of Peace which comes from having done one’s best is not pride in a job perfectly done. Our prayers may well have been acts which were full of distraction and selfish reverie and thus far from perfect. Yet if we have truly done our best, despite all that, then a true and realistic Peace is ours. The Peace of equanimity in His service.    A Jewish Contemplative is not scaling mystical heights or delving into spiritual depths in order to attain some sort of score or status. We don't do it to "make progress" or "attain a higher level". We do it simply to make ourselves available to God. We have nothing much to offer God anyway. Spiritual “success” lies in the intention and it is in this context that "doing our best is never second best”.

Our task is to fight the voice that says “sheesh, this is a pain!” when our life of dedicated prayer becomes boring, and replace that with quiet and unfussy gratitude, sincere effort, and the simple focus of true kavannah.
Azamra l’Elohai b’odi
(I will sing to God with the little I have left)
At those times when we are examining our response to the Divine call to be contemplatives it is not just for “full timers” like myself that these words speak. “The little we have left” may refer to the years of life we have but it may also refer to our “abilities” in prayer or to the amount of time in a day or week or month that we are able to devote to our “monastic” and contemplative side. To overcome any lack of fervour in our lives of dedication we should dig deep to awaken and raise up even the smallest , dormant spark of devotion which might lie buried in the lower reaches of our soul. It can be roused and fanned into a blaze of  life if we are prepared to make the effort.

We can beat back acedia, laziness, anxiety, and ingratitude by declaring “Azamra!”.....however short our prayer sessions, however rare our retreats in solitude, however wrapped up in our families, or jobs, or secular studies we may be.... what matters most is not the quantity of our contemplative actions and practices, but the dedicated and contemplative quality of our lives themselves. God sees the heart.

V’taheir libeinu l’ovdecha be’emes.
O,purify our hearts that we may  truly serve You.

N R Davies
26th October 2010
(Photo credit: Sorelle White 2010)