High Holy Day Challenge: Sing with Understanding

We say, chant, and sing most prayers in Hebrew in my Reform Jewish congregation in suburban Boston. And during High Holy Days, as a member of my temple chorus, I sing two overstuffed binders of prayers almost exclusively in Hebrew. Sometimes, it gives me a headache to sort out the meaning of prayers. And yet, I don’t really wish for anything else. Judaism has a gift – that the world over, Jews pray in the same language.

My temple chorus began rehearsals this week for High Holy day services. I relaxed as we sang Avinu Malkenu, so well known to me that the words flow easily from my tongue. I tensed when we started working on Sh’ma Koleynu, the opening anthem for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew neither the tune nor the words. I gave myself a challenge: By the time High Holy Days starts, I want to understand this particular prayer.

I will learn to treasure it. I do not want to sing this opening piece hidden behind my chorus binder. Nor do I want to sing the prayer as if it were just words and notes on paper. Experience what could be a majestic beginning to the Days of Awe. That is my goal – and challenge.

At rehearsal, our chorus stumbled some as we first sight-read a version of Sh’ma Koleynu written by an unknown composer. The piece called for singing with movement and energy. We sang it slowly and unsurely at first. Then our cantor at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., sang it. Even with a cold hampering her, she sang soulfully. We tried again as a chorus, and our second attempt was more melodic. And yet, I still felt wooden as I sang. I knew the words, “Sh’ma Koleynu,” meant “Hear our voices.” But that was about all I understood.

The cantor asked who knew the translation. A young man in the chorus translated it word by word, then the cantor summarized. By singing this piece, we are expressing a sense of longing that we want our prayers to be heard for a good year for us – and for the congregation. Realize, she told us, that this piece sets the tone for the High Holy Days. Ah, it is a prayer that issues a plea that the Lord hears our prayers for a good year, not just for ourselves but for everyone in the sanctuary. That I could grasp. I looked at the piece some more and recognized more Hebrew words. T’filah, I knew, meant prayer. So “t’filateynu” simply translates to “our prayers.”

Every year, the High Holy Days remind me how long my journey closer to my faith will be – a lifelong journey. I did not attend High Holy Day services during childhood. My first experience with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services was in college when I went to a campus service with an Orthodox student. I understood nothing. I rarely went to a service again until about a decade ago when I became a regular at High Holy Day services as a chorus member. Singing in the services makes the liturgy more accessible to me. To sing something, I push myself to understand the lyrics, whether the piece is a prayer or a Broadway show tune.

Roughly three weeks remain until Rosh Hashanah. I will begin responding to my own challenge in the easiest way I know how – by understanding the first phrase of the song. “Sh’ma koleynu Adonai Eloheynu.” Hear our voices, Lord our G-d.

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