Metzora

Thu, 04/19/2018 - 10:39am -- Cantor Phil Baron

Parashat Metzora
6 Iyar, 5778
Cantor Phil Baron (with Ethan Braun)

In this week’s parasha we learn that an “eruptive plague” might afflict your house and that “green or reddish streaks” might appear and go deep into the walls. Today we would call a mold specialist, but in ancient times it was necessary to dissemble the afflicted area stone by stone.

The Chassidic rabbis of old saw a metaphor in this. They suggest that the inhabitants of Canaan had hidden treasures inside these walls, and that the eruptive plague was there to serve as an enticement for the Israelites to look deeper into the walls to find the treasures. Their teaching was a spiritual one, encouraging us to look beyond the veil of the everyday to find God’s blessings.

The walls of VBS also contain treasures, both spiritual and corporeal. We tend to think of our leadership, staff and clergy as the “soul” of the congregation, but when we dig into the walls that support our community, something very different emerges. Our treasure is our people, our families, our students, our congregation -- young and old.

One such family, the Brauns, are certainly cherished by us-- all four generations. Next Shabbat morning on Saturday, April 28, you will have an opportunity to experience a unique “soundscape” created by Ethan Braun (son of Jonathan and Lynn, grandson of Richard and Barbara). Ethan is a young, highly accomplished, composer both here and in Europe. His credits are too vast to enumerate here, but his upcoming projects include an opera commissioned by the city of Berlin, an opera with Contemporaneous (NYC), and commissions for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ensemble Klang, and the Aaron Copland House CULTIVATE program.  Here is a description of what you will experience on April 28, in the composer’s own words. The piece is entitled “Marot” (mirrors).

Mirrors. Visions. The word in Hebrew could mean either. "Mirrors" seems static. A mirror is an object, an instrument for reflection. "Visions" could be events. One has a vision. One envisions. One had a vision for a certain something to go a certain way. So "visions" have often already happened, or will happen; or, they won't happen, and that certain something won't go as one had envisioned it to. 

This writing thinks through a Hebrew term in English. English is my native tongue and, though I would love to converse in Hebrew, it remains a language with something of a sacred hue for me, distant, even given its being, now, a completely normal, secular language. So with English, in my head, making the music you hear in the silent Amidah during Musaf on Shabbat, April 28, 2018, I pull out these two concepts: the vision and the mirror. 

The mirror reflects back the sounds of the Jewish community in which I was raised and of which I continue to be a part. This music is constructed solely from sounds recorded during moments of silent prayer in our daily minyans. One might recognize the thuds of woody Winer Chapel or the creaky metal door leading outside to it; the grand echoes of Sher-Lopaty; congregants conversing, or mumbling fragments of text, or letting out, in moments of supplication, improvised song. This music is a convex mirror whose reflections overlap each other, pour into one another, transform each other. At least I envisioned–or at least imagined with my ear–the experience thus. 

The sounds drawn from to make this music suggest more than music, and perhaps more than just prayer: they suggest community. Indeed they are community. As we Jews come together we talk, we chat, we fidget, awaiting the right moment to exit the chapel heeding the call of nature; we close doors ever so slowly when we get back, ever so quietly for fear of interruption, at times we trip over a foot, we drop a siddur, we discover, to our dismay, a loudly creaky chair to sit in at a silent moment. Stomachs gurgle in anticipation of kiddush–that challah tastes the same to me now at 30 as it did 20 years ago at 10. I was once a kid running out of the chapel, escaping duty at the first sign of permission from my folks. We used to congregate in our own kind of minyan outside in the halls, from where we'd explore the secret nooks and crannies of this place, sneaking a brownie mid-Torah service or sermon.

This flourishing, thriving Judaism sounds in so many ways. While I cannot presume expertise in matters liturgical, theological, or political, I will presume some knowledge of sounds, of hearing, of listening. This little piece reflects to you my sense of the sounds we make; with it I wish to document the sound of this place over these past few months as I have heard it, what I could envision through it, as it is only through sound that I feel confident in my ability to give something back to this marvelous place. 

מראות
dedicated to my dear friend Malkah Schulweis, and to the late Rabbi