21 Sep FORGET THE RABBI THE CANTOR, THE LION & THE FOX
THE LAST WISH
On Rosh Hashanah night, the Kazaks captured the rabbi, the cantor and the president of the synagogue, and granted them a final wish before they would be put to death.
The Rabbi: All year round I prepare for my Rosh Hashanah sermon. You can’t kill me before you let me present this sermon and get it out of my system.
“OK,” proclaimed the Kazaks. “We well allow you to give the sermon.” They turned to the cantor. “How about you? What is your final wish?”
“For 364 days a year, I prepare for my cantorial presentation on the High Holidays. For this year I composed many new brilliant and extraordinary compositions. You have to let me sing them before you kill me.”
“Granted,” said the Kazaks. “And you,” they said, turning to the president, “what is your final wish?”
“Kill me first,” he said.
SERMONS AND MELODIES
It’s been a longstanding tradition among Jewish communities the world over, to employ for the Yom Tovim chazzanim, often accompanied by choirs, to entertain, engage and inspire the multitudes of crowds flocking to synagogues during the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
In many shuls, the chazzan embodies the primary focus of the Yom Tov experience. As in a concert or opera, the cantor’s choice of melodies, his cantorial skills and manipulation of sounds and pitches constitutes the zenith of the services. Especially if the musical presentation is coupled with a rabbi who knows how to tell a good joke or bring a tear to the eye, it is a hands-down success story.
“Spit not in the well from which you drink,” suggests the Talmud. I should be the last one to find fault with this phenomenon, since I, too, am employed by a lovely community in New York to serve as a cantor and pontificator. Yet a moving thought from the great master the Baal Shem Tov concerning this “cantor” and “rabbi” phenomenon may be worthwhile for all synagogues and all of us to reflect upon.
AN ANGRY LION
The Baal Shem Tov, one of the most profound thinkers in the history of Jewish spirituality (1698-1760), once shared this following allegorical story.
Once upon a time, says the Baal Shem Tov, the lion grew furious with all of the other jungle animals. Since the lion is “the king of animal life,” and is most powerful and dominant, his ire evoked deep fright in the hearts of the other animals.
“What should we do?” murmured all the animals at an emergency meeting. “If the lion lets out his anger, we are all done.”
“No worries,” came the voice of the fox, known as the wiliest of animals. “In the reservoirs of my brain are stored 300 stories, anecdotes and vignettes. When I present them to the lion, his mood will be transformed.”
A wave of joy rushed through all the animals as they embarked on a march toward the lion’s home in the jungle, where the fox would placate him and restore the friendly relationship between the lion and his subjects.
THE FOX FORGETS
During the journey through the jungle pathways, the fox suddenly turns to one of his animal friends and says, “You know, I forgot 100 of my entertaining stories.”
Rumors of the fox’s lapse of memory spread immediately. Many animals were overtaken by profound trepidation, but soon came the calming voice of Mr. Bear.
“No worries,” he said. “Two hundred vignettes of a brilliant fox are more than enough to get that arrogant lion rolling in laughter and delight.
“They will suffice to do the job,” agreed Mr. Wolf.
A little while later, as the extraordinarily large entourage of animals was nearing the lion, Mr. Fox suddenly turned to another colleague. “I have forgotten another 100 of my anecdotes,” lamented the fox. “They simply slipped my mind.”
The animals’ fear became stronger, but soon enough came the reassuring voice of Mr. Deer.
“No worries,” he proclaimed, “One hundred fox stories will suffice to capture the imagination of our simple king.”
“Yes, 100 jokes will assuage the lion,” agreed Mr. Tiger.
A few moments later, all of the hundreds of thousands of animals were at the lion’s den. The lion rose to his full might and glory, casting a fierce gaze at all of his subjects, sending a shiver through their veins.
THE MOMENT OF ENCOUNTER
As the moment of truth arrived, all of the animals looked up with beseeching eyes to their bright representative the fox, to approach the lion and accomplish the great mission of reconciliation.
At that very moment, the fox turned to the animals and said, “I am sorry, but I forgot my last 100 stories. I have nothing left to say to the king.”
The animals went into hysteria. “You are a vicious liar,” cried they cried. “You deceived us completely. What are we to do now?”
“My job,” responded the fox calmly, “was to persuade you to take the journey from your own nests to the lion’s nest. I have accomplished my mission. You are here. Now, let each and every single one of you discover his own voice and rehabilitate his own personal relationship with the king.”
This story, concluded the Baal Shem Tov, illustrates a common problem in institutionalized religion. We come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or any other time of the year, and we rely on the “foxes” — the chazzanim and the rabbis — to serve as our representative to the King of Kings.
“The rabbi’s sermon today was unbelievable,” we often proclaim after services. “He is really awesome.” Or, “That cantor? His vibrato just melted my soul.” These clergy all-too-often become the “foxes” who know how to get the job done for us.
Yet, sooner or later, we come to realize that the foxes, with all due respect, don’t really have what it takes to address the king on behalf of you and me. Each of us must discover his or her own inner voice and inner passion and spirit, and speak to G-d with a distinct and unique.
Chazzanim and rabbis during the Yomim Tovim (and the rest of the year) ought to view themselves as the Baal Shem Tov’s foxes: Their function is to persuade and inspire people to leave their own self-contained domains and embark on a journey toward something far deeper and more real. But each and every one of us must ultimately enter the space of G-d alone.
So this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, don’t rely on any foxes. Speak to G-d directly. With your own words, with your own soul. Heart to heart, from your truest place to His truest place.