Some of my first memories are from when I would crawl underneath the grand piano in my family’s living room while my mother was practicing. The intensity of the vibrations from being so close to the soundboard was incredible. Every bone in my body felt the vibration, and the experience of listening took over my entire body. My mother, of course, would stop playing immediately because that level of sound is certainly unhealthy for developing ears, but I would still try to sneak under to get the full body experience of listening to music.
Our lives can bring many moments of overwhelming sound. Often these sounds distract us or cause us pain. A busy office can prevent us from focusing, and the sounds of traffic and construction lead to headaches and discomfort. These sounds compete with our thoughts. This noise can take up space in our minds and leave little room for other thoughts. Not all sounds are this type of distracting noise, though. Sometimes music or white noise can help us focus. In my experience, this sort of background music takes up enough space to drown out distractions while leaving the right amount of bandwidth to focus on the task at hand.
There are other times when the sound is the focus. This focus can take work, like opening our ears to the sound of nature while on a walk in the woods. Sometimes, we seek out the sounds that can overwhelm our experience. This could be natural sounds like the powerful sound of a waterfall or a storm or it could be a powerful piece of music. These overwhelming sounds may drown out explicit thoughts, but they also become opportunities to let different emotions arise. The melodies and natural sounds are evocative, and we can train ourselves to let the sounds draw out stronger emotions.
We begin Kabbalat Shabbat with Psalm 95 whose words are a call to praise with an overwhelming sound.
לְכוּ נְרַנְּנָה לַה’ נָרִיעָה לְצוּר יִשְׁעֵנוּ׃ נְקַדְּמָה פָנָיו בְּתוֹדָה בִּזְמִרוֹת נָרִיעַ לוֹ׃
Lechu neranana l’Adonai naria l’tzur yisheinu / n’kadma fanav b’todah bizmirot naria lo
Go! Let us praise Adonai, let us make a joyful sound to the Rock of our redemption. Let us appear before God in thanksgiving; with songs we will make a joyful sound to God.
Both lines use the word naria, a word that emphasizes the power of joyful noise. While in other contexts, this can evoke the overwhelming noise of war, distress, or victory, in this context, it is the sound of joy, but it is also a joy that evokes the full energy of those other dramatic moments. The use of the word invites us to make our experience of Kabbalat Shabbat a more musically captivating experience in which we express feelings of joy with song and excitement.
Starting this week, we will be using Joey Weisenberg’s Kane Street Niggun for these first lines from the psalm. After singing through the melody with the words once, we will repeat the melody without words as is customary for the wordless melodies of niggunim. By repeat the melody, it is my hope that we can let the melody fill our minds and become the full subject of our focus. As we let the melody fills our soul, it becomes a tool to evoke our reflections on the past week.
Though we will not recite the full psalm, it is important to note that the psalm ends on a word of Divine warning. In the midst of a celebration, God reminds Israel the way that our ancestors in the desert turned away from God. That generation was not allowed to enter the Land of Israeli, in this psalm, described as God’s menuchah. This refers to the idea that the Land of Israel was God’s resting place, but in the context of Kabbalat Shabbat, it refers to the feeling of rest on Shabbat. As a word of warning, it reminds us that the feeling of reflection and release that prayer can bring depends on our ability to enter the space of prayer with an open heart. Our Shabbat services provide different ways for us to do that. We begin with the sounds of joy with Kabbalat Shabbat while our tone becomes more reflective later in the services. When we are open to the melodies and words of our liturgy then our prayer can become a transcendent, transformative experience.