Monday, October 12, 2009

Simchat Torah, Aimee Mann, and Synagogue Renewal

Sunday morning marked the end of the fall holy day season, with Simchat Torah. Once again, Moses died and the world was created, as we finish the Torah cycle and begin anew. We had a lively, spirited and fun celebration, dancing with the Torah to the music of the Moody Jews. It was a great way to close the holidays, especially for me, as I began my Rosh Hashanah sermons with a piece on dancing.

Later that evening, I attended a concert by Aimee Mann, at the Egyptian Theater. For those who don't know Aimee Mann, she is one of the great singers and songwriters of our time, and she put on quite a show. The first half of the concert followed a set list, which featured lots of favorite tunes and songs from the Magnolia soundtrack, played with grace and skill. But the highlight was the second half, when Aimee and her "band" of two fellow musicians played--for over an hour--all requests from the enthusiastic crowd. During this whole time, they traded off on instruments, with each musician playing assorted guitars, bass, keyboards, pedal steel, and even the recorder.

It was loose, and sometimes humorous. At one point, Aimee stopped in the middle of a song and asked her bandmate: "What chord starts the bridge?" He responded, "B flat major over E7." She laughed, then sighed and said, "OK. Song's over."

And the audience loved it. That was the magic of the show, the loose improvisation, the spontaneity, the superb musicianship and, above all, the sense that the musicians themselves were having a fabulous time. For all of this to happen, they had to be willing to fail now and again. But even the failures were, in a way, successes, pointing to the humanity of the artists, and deepening their connection to their audience. I've been to many over-produced, slick concerts by famous musicians that were not half as enjoyable. The willingness to take chances--backed, of course, by superb talent--made the show.

And on my way home, still elated from the concert, it struck me that this should guide our approach to synagogue transformation. There is a lot that we can and will learn by "going by the book." Expertise is essential and we don't want to re-invent the wheel. But an improvisatory spirit is just as important. When we approach the task playfully--when we have fun--that joy will be contagious. And a willingness to fail will, paradoxically, enable us to succeed. We need both kavannah--our tradition's version of the first half of the show, with a fixed set list--and kevah, the intangible spirit that infused the second half.

Or, to return to the metaphor I used on Rosh Hashanah, and lived on Simchat Torah: in order to dance, we need to know the steps. But dancing is, above all else, about the leap of joy, and knowing that if (or when) we fall, we can get right back up again and keep dancing.

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