Body, Soul & Song: In Celebration of Cantor Hollis

Posted on May 17, 2019

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

Nishmat kol chai  t’varech et shimcha, Adonai Eloheinu

Let the soul of every living thing bless your name, Adonai our God….

Ka-amur: L’David — Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol k’rovai et shem kodsho.

As it says in the book of Psalms, Let my soul bless God, and let my very innards praise that holy name.


Judaism has never particularly shied away from all sorts of things not typically discussed, or done, in polite company:  talking about God, talking about bodily functions, singing in public….

Some religious traditions separate body and soul—or see the body as imprisoning or corrupting the spirit.  Ours, no.  Torah understands life as the animation of divine breath in our bodies, so that body and soul work in partnership; one cannot do its needed work in the world without the other.  Our honoring of the body as a sacred tool for thought and action is the basis of most of our blessings.

Our ability to open our eyes?  There’s a blessing for that.  Our ability to form words with our lips?  There’s a blessing for that.  Our ability to eat, digest, and even (very importantly) to defecate?  There’s a blessing for that too.  Our ability to raise the falling, care for the sick, free captives, teach our children, make bread, see a rainbow, march for justice?  There are blessings for those too.  Our tradition teaches that our ability to feel gratitude for the gifts of creation is housed within our amazing ability to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell those gifts.

We know that not all of us can do all of those things all of the time, but we honor the body for what it can do, even when we are broken.  We understand that wholeness is not the same as perfection:  we are all imperfect, and even yet, we praise the holy with these instruments we have.

As Cantor Hollis has taught us on so many Shabbat and holiday mornings, our tradition teaches that we should find opportunities to offer blessings 100 times a day.  And, our liturgy begins each morning with acknowledgment of the openings, closings, and functioning of veins, arteries, intestines, and organs that are our bodies. We know that, without them, we would not be able to offer these blessings in the first place.


The kabbalists teach that, when God created the world, God placed the first light of creation in holy vessels, which burst, scattering light among us all, and that it is our job to gather those sparks wherever they may be and to unite them in holy flame.

But, another version could be that, in the beginning, when the breath of God was hovering over the waters, there was chaos until God spoke the first word, “Yehi,” “Let there be,” making the first sound.  And the story could go that that sound, God’s voice of creation and goodness, found its nesting place in every living thing—and that it is our role as humans—and as Jews—to help each other give voice, to offer blessings in music, and teaching, and poetry.

Our ability to make music comes from our bodies, and our first instruments are our bodies.  Our babies cry, blow raspberries, clap, laugh, and make the extraordinarily profane sounds that make us laugh (and sometimes cry too) in return.  We are instruments from the moment of our first breath, which is when our Jewish tradition says that the soul first fully inhabits the body.  In fact, the word for soul in Hebrew, n’shamah, is almost identical to the word for breath, n’shimah, since in our tradition breath and soul inhabit each other.

(As a side bar, this is why, when legislators in some states talk about “the religious point” of view about when life begins, we might point out that not all religions agree about when life separate from a mother’s body is understood to start, nor about what “religion’s” priorities are regarding potential and present life.  If each of our bodies is a unique and holy vessel of our own unique and holy souls, then having someone legislate what can be done with one’s body is problematic from this religion’s point of view, indeed.)

In ancient Jewish tradition, life begins with breath—and breath and music are inextricably linked.  Truly, not only are our bodies able to make music, the workings of our bodies make each of us a holy symphony in ourselves, each part playing with and off of the other parts.
Even when we are ill and the music is in discord, it is the symphonic interplay among bones, muscles, and organs that allows us to breathe air, beat our hearts, and make music while we can.


This is true of our bodies—and is true of our communities as well.  While there are those who lead by speaking loudest or most forcefully, I am of the belief that what we most often need from leaders, friends, and strangers alike is the support to find our own music and to lend it, and blend with, the worldwide orchestra of which we are a part.  We seek the encouragement to discover and bring forth the music that our own bodies and souls are here to express through our words, thoughts, and deeds.  Sometimes, we need the encouragement of someone providing a beautiful model by creating music of their own, other times we need another’s caring silence into which we can speak, and, at still other times, we need the song of someone who helps us to sing along.


What a weekend of communal music this Shabbat rings in.  Led by a choir and band modeling sacred song tonight; tomorrow’s beautiful and song-filled Bat Mitzvah; our youth singing both tonight and on Sunday for the end of our Religious School year; tomorrow evening’s Ruach Lounge concert; and always, here with our cantor, who gifts us with music, provides silence and support when it is time to help others speak, and whose passion is to blend her voice with us all, so that we all can learn to sing along.

May this Shabbat and weekend be one of blessing of body and soul for each of us, in gratitude.

Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol k’rovai et shem kodsho.

Let my soul bless all that is holy, and let my very innards praise God’s holy name.

Shabbat Shalom.