My understanding of Hebrew is limited. Rarely do I get the time to intensely learn the meaning of a single prayer. Recently, a renowned cantor gave me that chance. Actually, cantor and composer Linda Hirschhorn gave me no choice but to understand a prayer before I sang it in front of others.
Cantor Hirschhorn, whose specialty is a cappella, recently came to Temple Isaiah of Lexington as an artist-in-residence. She led about 30 of us in 14 hours of rehearsal spread over four days. We then performed with her in our temple’s Friday night service last week and in a concert on Sunday. I could write at length about how this was the most intense musical experience I’ve ever had instrumentally or vocally. But what sticks with me more is how this composer and cantor taught me to understand one section of a prayer. She made me think. She showed the awesome power of the combined force of prayer and song.
Think of this as a pleading to God, she said before we began learning the music she wrote to “N’tzor L’Shoni Mayrah.” The words in phonetic Hebrew are, “Elohai, n’tzor l’shoni mayrah u’s’fatai midaber mirmah.” In English, they mean: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit.” These words are part of the lead-in paragraphs of Hebrew to a much better known prayer said at Friday evening Shabbat services, the part where we say: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing before You, Adonai, My Rock and My Redeemer.” I knew those words well. But I did not remember ever hearing the “n’tzor” section. I either did not understand it or paid no attention when I heard it.
The song she was teaching us, Cantor Hirschhorn said, was a pleading that each of us learn to guard what we say so we do not harm someone else. Words, this former peace activist reminded us, can foment war. Think, she told us, of what plea we want to make on our own behalf. Keep that plea private.
I jotted down some words at the top of my music. “Be kind, not competitive.” I had voluntarily signed up for this choral experience that would require me to work even harder to tone down my voice, a voice I spent years learning how to project for community theater solo parts. I sang regularly with the temple chorus, but this was a tougher challenge. We would sing with no instrumental accompaniment. There were new people joining us, some of whom had almost no prior chorus experience. If I projected too much, I would most definitely spoil the effect. I would also seem like I was trying to be a star in a situation where there should be no star. I needed to learn what the cantor was passionately trying to teach us: join our individual voices with others to sound like one.
“E-lo-hai,” Cantor Hirschhorn sang in demonstration, singing each syllable softly and plaintively. It was hauntingly beautiful, the softest of pianissimos. She was showing us how to make a plea to God. She was showing us how to pray. I am a high soprano. Singing high notes softly requires more breath and focus. The cantor demonstrated the plea on the highest notes in the song. The first time I tried those measures, I failed. My voice soared too high and loud above the others. With each rehearsal, I improved. I thought of the plea I was making. I thought of how I could be petty at times, and how I hated to be like that. I thought of how I wanted to be the best role model I could be for my almost 3-year-old son. My notes softened. I found the strength to sing high and gently. This was not about belting out a solo on a community theater stage. Sung as part of a community, this was a personal prayer.
Note: Photo of Linda Hirschhorn was taken by Michael Fox.