Singing a New Song - Hearing God's Voice (Jan 2011)

God is There. God is Here.

Parshah Yitro describes the Voice of the Eternal giving the Torah at Mount Sinai to each of those listening below. Haftarah Yitro describes the vision of Isaiah in which he hears the Song of the Angels. By “singing a new song” in our individual liturgies and in our lives, we are preparing the ground of our souls for the reception of the Torah of the heart. By “singing” with a fresh voice each day we can make ourselves more attentive to the Voice of the Eternal. A Voice which speaks to us from Sinai but which also sings in our souls in the Eternal Present. I call the place where both those events can happen simultaneously- M’arat ha-Lev- the Cave of the Heart: a place which is both part of God and part of each individual, a kind of meeting place for the Divine and the Human in prayer. It is a threshold I can see reflected in the photo alongside: God is There. God is Here.

In our contemplative prayer we are attempting to listen to the Voice of God as He speaks in the core of our souls. But religious and observant Jews are not just involved in meditation or contemplative prayer as there are also several daily services which many of us recite. For those who pray these services with focus and true kavannah, they are a liturgy which can be both the prelude to deep contemplative prayer or they can be “stretched” with reflective silent pauses to become themselves the vehicle of deep and wordless contemplation.

When we say the same words of liturgy every day it is inevitable that those words must sometimes lose their freshness. Some contemplatives say that this is not necessarily a negative thing as it encourages an almost mantra-like absorption in the One worshipped rather than on the texts being pronounced. It can be so. But it can also mean that we just allow our minds to wander away from both. One of the ways I strive to avoid this is to invent new melodies each day for the prayers I am chanting. Somedays my liturgy will be a mixture of traditional and improvised melodies. Most days I will sing totally new music for all of prayer texts.

One of the prayers which I always sing to a new melody is the kedushah- that very same Song of the Angels from Haftarah Yitro:

קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יי צְבָאוֹת
מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
ADONAI Tzevaot
Melo kol ha aretz Kevodo

Other, Other, Totally Other
Is HaShem, the Lord of Angelic Armies.
The whole world is full of His Glory
(Isaiah 6:3)

In this special case, improvising a new melody is not due to any fear that the words of the prayer may have become blunted. It is because there is a poetic image that some angels are created to sing just once and then are burned out in their unique act of fiery worship. I like to sing along with them.

Actually, the kedushah is probably the only prayer I use which has never, ever, become in any way blunted to me. Not once. It has always been the most poignant and spine-tingling liturgical text I know. Odd then, that it is only in the last couple of years that I have noticed what a remarkably beautiful and clear expression of the theology of God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence it actually is. God is There. God is Here,

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Totally other and removed from all our experience and knowledge
All the world is filled with God’s Glory
Everything that lives and breathes is filled with His life-sustaining breath and light.

On the one hand we are acknowledging God as El Elyon- the “God beyond all we know” who cannot be grasped or approached. On the other we proclaim God as HaShem, the One who is simultaneously enthroned in our hearts as our very life-force. In one earth-melting descriptor which combines both perspectives: HaShem Tzevaot.

As I wrote elsewhere:

“He dwells in worlds beyond our comprehension and the Creatures who surround Him there in worship are as Aliens to us.

He is present in all the atoms of all the worlds we know or ever could know....He fills the space and time between those atoms, between our intuitions and thoughts, between our thoughts and our words, and between our experiences and our understandings. Inescapable. Inside each individual, as totally as He was in the Holy of Holies.”

This is the God who inspires the awe and terror of Sinai and yet also the God who carries us on eagle’s wings. (Exodus 19:4) The eagle does sometimes fly with its young on its limbs, and our God, this God of storm and might and war and fire allows us this almost terrifying intimacy with us, His creations.

Many of our mystics and scholars point to the Revelation at Sinai as being the eternal moment of Israel’s intimacy with its God. Not just for its Prophet Moses, its leaders, or the official clergy, or a few select priestly or pious types...but for each and every one of the People of Israel for all time. Just as it took me many years to spot the now obvious theological implications of the kedushah, it is only today that I have noticed a line in Parshah Yitro in its full and shocking weightiness. Immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments, God declares:

“In every Place where I cause My Name to be mentioned,
I will come to you and bless you.”
(Exodus 20:21)

This is equating any time and place with Sinai.

God made (makes) this promise at Sinai to make Sinai literally present at every moment and location where we are either praying or studying Torah.

Outside of Time and for all Time.

He promises:

I will come to you and bless you with all the power and might of this moment at Sinai anywhere and at any time. All you need do is call me.

I was stunned by that textual-spiritual discovery. And not a little surprised that it only hit me in the face today for the first time. The Voice we heard at Sinai can be heard at any time and in any place if only we call on Him. The Glory of His Shekhinah fills every atom of creation.

He uttered His Voice, The earth melted.
The Lord of celestial armies is with us.
(Psalm 46)

One would think that we would run to embrace such a Being. But we don’t. And it is not always out of the awe or the terror that we felt at Sinai when we begged not to hear God’s voice directly. (Exodus 20:16) It is often because we ourselves have allowed His words (in the liturgy and the scriptures) to become either blunted or best avoided as they are so “demanding”.

When we feel the call to meet God in prayer, either formally or informally, we say: “I’ll do it later I need to do x first” ....and then we forget. Or we say: “I am not feeling spiritual today, I’ll do it tomorrow”......and in so doing we may miss the window of opportunity that has been set up for us. What we should be saying is:

It’s not about us, it’s about Him ...
and our feelings are irrelevant.
It is our intention and our attention that really matter.

And then we should just get on with it!

In Kuntres M’arat Ha-Lev I commented on this by saying:

“It begins as a gentle but insistent sense that He is giving us an invitation to meet Him. So simple, and yet so easily ignored or discounted as “merely our imagination”….hence His insistence. It is not a special gift for the chosen…it is an invitation for everyone. It just embarrasses us to admit we sense it. Possibly out of personal reticence, or maybe, and quite justifiably, we are simply rather afraid of it and its implications.
We can find many excuses to ignore the invitation or postpone its acceptance, or face its moment… It may however, be an invitation to share in the kind of listening which is the most essential part of the tikkun process and if so, then that should be proclaimed from the roof tops.

In the text of morning prayer the kedushah of the Heavens is declaimed alongside that of our World during the Amidah. In the Amidah it is a blazing paen of ecstatic worship from all God’s children, both the celestial and the human. But there is an earlier recital of the kedushah in the blessing Ha m’orot. In this location it is a preparation for the recitation of the Sh’ma. We consider the theological message of the kedushah as a way of preparing ourselves to listen to the Voice of God. By reminding ourselves that God is everywhere we accept the possibility that we ourselves are able to communicate directly with Him, both in praise and in attentive contemplation.

The kedushah itself is not the prayer which “makes the event of Sinai present”. The text which marks this event is the Sh’ma:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָד

Listen Israel HaShem is our God HaShem alone

Not just the text itself. But the act which that text demands we perform: Listening in full attentiveness to the God who would speak directly to us.

So often- we run away from the God who is making an invitation to stand before him at Sinai. So often- we struggle and wriggle against the boredom and inertia of waiting and waiting and waiting in attentive prayer when nothing ever seems to be happening. So often- do we assume that God is “out and not home” to us just because we don’t feel the presence of His Glory.

Don’t think for one minute that I am on a sort of missionary tack trying to stimulate a certain remorse in you the reader by saying all this. Far from it. It is quite normal for us to feel like this. I am simply describing the obvious: People who  pray or go to shul very rarely (usually) experience religious apathy and boredom less than than those who are davening or meditating or engaging in hitbodedut daily- day in day out. We are often just experiencing the ups and downs common to all relationships and what matters is not our perceived “results” but our attempts to do our best.

In this, we all need reminding that:

Our God is totally Other
(and so we cannot be expected to even begin to appreciate the enormity of what He is and does. Ever.)

But He is always there for us
(and so we really ought to be patient when our audiences with Him seem equally intangible and wrapped in impenetrable cloud)

This is His way- Not ours. The way of the God of Sinai:

See- I come to you in a thick cloud.
(Exodus 19:9)

But what we CAN do is make our song to Him- a new song every day. 
And the song we should sing is the song which says:

“He is there but He is also HERE. Right now.”

Sing it anew. Then listen, Israel.

N R Davies
January 12th 2011