Sermon in Song: TST Choir and United Parish Brookline Choir

Posted on September 28, 2022

Introduction by Rabbi Danny Burkeman

I remember trying out for my synagogue youth choir when I was a child. I really enjoyed singing and it also meant that I would get to miss a bit of the regular class. They had a policy that everyone was accepted into the choir and so they let me in. One day, when preparing for a performance of some sort the Rabbi came over to me and suggested that I should mime when we were singing. This probably shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, as in my Jewish elementary school choir my role was to turn the pages for the pianist.

Singing, or at least singing in tune and on key, is not a personal strength; but I have always appreciated the power that music possesses. When becoming an American, I remember how powerful it was to sing the national anthem for the first time as a citizen. As a parent, I’ve watched the way that music can calm my children down and completely change their moods. And as a Rabbi, I have the immense privilege of bearing witness to the way in which our Cantor, Song leaders, and Choir are able to elevate the entire community, and reach deep into our souls, unlocking our deepest yearnings, hopes, and prayers.

At this time of year, the music holds a special power. Words alone cannot compete with the majesty of Kol Nidrei, the haunting melody sung throughout the ages, encompassing the yearning, the loss, and the hope of Yom Kippur in a single moment. Throughout these ten days, we will sing Unetaneh Tokef, finding a musical way to express our deepest fears about the fragility of life. And then there are some of our more modern additions that have become part of our annual liturgy. Michael Skloff’s Kedusha truly elevates the holiness of the moment, with music that uplifts and rises together with our sense of connection to the Divine.

The music carries us through this season and enriches our souls to emerge from these days renewed, inspired, and reinvigorated. This year, we are adding a new piece of music to our Erev Rosh Hashanah service to uplift our spirits, elevate us, and prepare us to truly enter these Ten Days of Repentance.

E.E. Cummings majestic poem: I thank You God is such a wonderful addition to our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. I don’t know whether he wrote it specifically for the Jewish new year, I suspect that he didn’t, but the words and themes are perfect for this day as we celebrate the birthday of the world and God’s creation.

I imagine that the Kabbalists of Tsfat would have loved the references to the infiniteness of the natural world and the idea of being “lifted from the no of all nothing”. I am sure that Deborah the Prophetess, who was also a lyricist, would have seen echoes of her own words in the references to nature with the “greenly spirits of trees” and the “blue true dream of sky”. And our Patriarch Jacob would certainly have resonated with the idea of our ears being awakened and our eyes suddenly being opened to behold and appreciate the wonder and majesty, the awesomeness of God’s creation.

The Jewish echoes are evident throughout the song and “dayenu – that would have been enough”, but on Rosh Hashanah when we celebrate the birthday of the world this song provides us a framework through which to view this day. It challenges us to appreciate anew the beauty and wonder of God’s creation, to marvel at the natural world, and to appreciate the gifts it presents to us. This day possesses within it the idea of rebirth, which the song encapsulates, we enter into the new year reborn and ready to renew our commitment, our appreciation, and our awe of the world that God has given to us as a gift for us to till and tend, to nurture and cherish.

The significance of the song for Rosh Hashanahdayenu – that would have been enough”, but as you’ll hear we have the arrangement by Dan Forrest and the voices of our choir and these fabulous musicians. It does that amazing thing which only choral music can truly do, in exponentially multiplying the majesty of word and melody through the union of multiple voices singing as one. Sometimes we think about certain pieces of music requiring a specific setting to accommodate their grandeur and majesty. I hope that our synagogue and your screens provide a suitable physical setting, but more importantly, this most awesome of days is the appropriate setting in time for a piece such as this one.

The Jewish themes, the Rosh Hashanah symbolism, the beautiful melody – “dayenu – that would have been enough”, but here we are on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a combined choir of the United Parish of Brookline and Temple Shir Tikva to inspire us through song. We are so grateful for the relationship that we have with our Christian siblings from the UPB, and especially for the shared work that Susan DeSelms does with both of our choirs. Given the longevity of this connection it is easy to miss the significance of what is actually happening – Christians and Jews singing together as a combined choir to praise God, to elevate our communities, and to unite our voices in prayer. In the span of our religious traditions, it is not too long ago that this type of friendship and partnership would have been unprecedented and almost impossible.

We are blessed to have had our choirs and communities join together on many occasions in the past. But this year we have deepened that connection and taken another step forward in breaking new ground together. On Easter our combined choirs sang at the Church and now on Rosh Hashanah our combined choirs sing at the Synagogue. There may be a lot that is currently wrong in our world and people may want to point the finger at religion for being the cause of many of today’s problems. But in a church in Brookline and now a synagogue in Wayland we are showing what is truly possible – joining our voices together in song and prayer on the holiest days of our calendar.

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Berachot 57b) taught that there are three things which provide us with a taste of the world to come – they are the Sabbath, the sun and the experience of the body. And after you hear this song tonight, I think that we will need to add a fourth item to that list because the joining together of Church and Synagogue choir to sing a song praising God on Rosh Hashanah is undeniably a taste of the world to come.

“i thank You God” by E. E. Cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes;

i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth;

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened.