[Sing the tune to Hannukah blessings and Happy Birthday]
Isn’t it interesting that a simple tune, like Happy Birthday or the tune to the Hanukkah blessings, can make you think of so many different things? Memories, moments, faces, latkes…there are so many little songs that can conjure up so many different feelings. Music can do that.
Many of you here today are familiar with the Shabbat morning service and when you hear[hum haftorah line of trope], you think of haftorah. Maybe some of you noticed that today’s haftorah sounded unusual. That’s because large parts of it were chanted using a different melody.
The melody, called “Eicha trope” is meant to make you think about Tisha B’Av, the holiday that begins this Wednesday night. Tisha Ba’av, the Jewish National Day of Mourning on the ninth day of Av is a day when we are told all these terrible things happened to the Jews. The first crusade, the Expulsion of Jews from both Spain and England, and primarily the destructions of the first and second Temples. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year.
On Tisha Ba’av we read from the book of lamentations, called Eicha in Hebrew and it is chanted using a special trope.
Trope. What is it? The word trope is thought to be derived from the Greek tropos or the Latin tropus referring to a musical mode used in Christian churches in the middle ages. The earliest know identification of this term with a Jewish chant appears in a commentary by eleventh century rabbi Rashi in which he refers to a piece of music that is to be sung in a sweetened chant which Rashi calls “trope”.
Different tropes, just like different pieces of music, all sound differently. Eicha trope, which is supposed to help us remember a sad day, sounds like this: [Hum line 4 of haftarah in Eicha trope] while the haftorah trope that is chanted most other weeks sounds like this: [Hum line 1 of haftarah in regular trope.]
We chant Eicha not only in parts of my haftorah today and on Tisha Ba’av, but also there are small bits of the Book of Esher that refer directly to the temple or loss of hope, and those part are in Eicha trope too.
So the tradition of reading the haftorah on the Shabbat just before Tisha Ba’av with some of the Eicha trope is meant to call up images of all the bad things that happened on the Ninth of Av. But most Jews alive today don’t have many memories of Tisha Ba’av. It’s not like Hannukah or Passover or other holidays that you celebrate with your family and friends. Though its one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar, its not so well known or observed. That might have to do with the fact that it is an incredibly sad day that Jews prefer not to talk about that much and also, because it is during the Summer when religious school is out and people are on vacation, it just sort of slips through many of our lives un-noticed and un-touched.
That is why it came as a big shock to me when, after learning to chant most of my haftorah in the usual way, I was told that I had to relearn most of it in a trope that few people recognize let alone know how to chant.
Eicha trope? I’d never heard of it. Tisha B'Av? Okay, I thought, I’ll try to be sad about an event that happened 2000 years before I was born. But was it really necessary to add my misery in having to learn to chant my haftorah all over again to long list of disasters that happened to the Jewish people on that day?
I kept thinking: this can’t be happening to me.
Then I got angry. Very angry. Why had I wasted a month of precious seventh grade learning a haftorah that it turns out hey- the way you learned it was all wrong! I kept on asking: Why me?
I realized that I was starting to sound like a mourner going through the five stages of grief. This seemed appropriate because Tisha B’Av is all about mourning. I’m not trying to minimize the feelings of real mourners, but I was seriously upset. What twelve year old wouldn’t be? It was totally unfair.
Nevertheless, part of being a tween is excepting other peoples mistakes and learning to handle the situation. I accepted the task of learning Eicha as a kind of a challenge and chose to learn the trope. For part of the school year, my asthma started acting up and I was unable to go to school. Sometimes listening to Julie, my tutor, sing my haftorah on the CD she made for me would calm me and just take my mind off medicine and tight lungs. As a musician, I also found Eicha trope to be very beautiful and interesting. I must confess that in the end, I am very glad that I learned it.
In addition to learning the special trope, part of preparing for my bat mitzvah included learning more about Tisha Ba’av. I realized that it’s more than just the Jewish Friday the 13th. The loss of the temples in Jerusalem was a big turning point in Jewish history. We wouldn’t be here today, in a conservative synagogue, praying together, with a female at the bema, if we still had the temple. Many years later, it’s possible to see all the good and the growth that came from the destruction, not just of the end of two beautiful monuments and the many deaths related to it.
By the good that came out of it I mean: the end of animal sacrifice and the role of the priests. I’m sure most people are glad that we don’t have animal sacrifices anymore and the kind of Judaism we have today is one where everyone is equal. The priests are gone.
Today, rabbis can be leaders but they are really there as teachers. We don’t need anyone to be an intermediary between us and God. I don’t think we ever did but the end of the temple really meant that the priests no longer had that kind of role. Instead, we can pray as a people or as a person.
That’s one of the things I love about music. It gets rid of another barrier between us and God. The barrier of words. We can be our own intermediary. Like the well-known story of the shepherd boy who plays his flute on Yom Kippur because he doesn’t know the words to the prayers. The music is more than acceptable to the rabbi in the story then the hollow prayers of the distracted congregants. The boy’s music is considered an even better way to connect with God because the boy is really praying with his soul.
So, as someone who doesn’t necessarily want a new temple to be built, or to see Judaism be different from what it is today, then what is it that I could mourn on Tisha B’Av?
And other than the fact that it is part of our history, what’s the value of putting so much energy into remembering the temple? I’ve spent a long time thinking about this but it wasn’t until I went to New York in the beginning of Summer that I began to find an answer to the question of why we have to remember the temple.
On my trip to New York, aside from seeing the Empire State Building, going to my cousin Peter’s bar mitzvah and visiting my family, my mother, brother and I decided to go to Ground Zero. I’d been to New York City before and seen the twin towers from afar. Who couldn’t? They were the huge symbol of New York and it was on every postcard. When I got there, I stood behind the giant wire fence and next to all the tourists with their loud children, flash photography, tissues….and couldn’t speak. I didn’t know anybody that was directly affected by September 11th but I still felt the loss very strongly. The loss of what specifically? It was more then the loss of a piece of history. I felt like I’d lost something I’d never had a chance to connect to.
That’s when I thought of the temple. With the temple what we all lost was something we never had a chance to connect to. And that’s a loss that’s hard to memorialize. Just look at what is going on with Ground Zero. I don’t think that rebuilding on that site will heal anything because the most important thing about Ground Zero is what isn’t there.
As I stood there with a homeless man playing the recorder behind me, I stared out at this big empty space where there was nothing but sound. Everything was loud around me. The city, the construction workers, the tourists. And I suddenly…connected. The way I could connect to the whole thing was not through some monument, or some words, but through sounds and the absence of sounds. A kind of music.
If we lived in Israel we could visit the kotel-the monument at the site of the temple- but since we don’t live there and we just have this big empty space in front of us, one thing we can do to try and connect is chant Eicha trope – the words and the music. And hearing Eicha trope this Shabbat is meant to get you in a kind of Tisha B’Av mood. The thing is, that mood is really supposed to be mournful. Incredibly, heart wrenching sad kind of mournful. Eicha alone, though, is not actually that sad of a melody. Some cantors have really put can really put their hearts into the music and when they sing Eicha and it becomes a completely different and more powerful tune. But if you were to go up to somebody and start singing today’s haftorah, they’re first reaction would not be “Wow, that sounds so sad.” Which is the impression we get from things like Kol Nidre. Eicha trope seems like its kind of like a stylized sadness. You can hear the distance from the event but if it is supposed to make us feel more connected to the loss then why isn’t it more heart wrenching?
Imagine you’re a newscaster on the morning of 9/11. You hear what’s happened, you see pictures of New York, you feel like every other American who’s listening to their radios or staring at their televisions-horrified. But you have just say the facts in a serious tone, without bursting into tears. That’s kind of like Eicha trope. It’s not the sound of someone who was there but it’s more removed. Maybe more like someone who was there but has told this story many many times and doesn’t want to get back into the grief each time.
Also, the way it sounds actually helps me hear the words better than if I were trying to hear them through the kind of emotions that go with them. I’ve been playing music for a very long time. When I was ten I went to this privet music school where they taught a specific way of how to play the violin—how to hold the bow, how to shift, how to play the high notes without squeaking too much. Though everyone was lovely and respected their fellow musicians, I always had the nagging feeling that someone was always going to be better than me. I got caught up in the competition rater then what I was there for-the music.
On fourth grade solo night, the first solo night I performed in, I played a fast showy piece that granted me vast amounts of praise although I had felt that I didn’t do such a great job . While on stage, I had been focused on the mistakes I had made and the tempo and the piano, but not how I was connecting with the music. In the months following, my pieces got showier and showier and I felt like I was catching up to the players whom had always been on top. I was so concentrated on mastering a harder level of music that I completely forgot about pacing myself and really listening to my violin. I was wrapped up in a web of competitive playing that I had no clue how to get out of. Between my first and second solo performances, I developed tendonitis in my right arm then my left arm. Though there were times in my life that I thought violin was just a stupid waste not time that I would someday be able to quit, being unable to play really made me miss it. During the short intervals in which the tendonitis wasn’t as bad, I tried to play like everyone else and go back to where I was before I got it.
For fifth grade solo night, though it was hard to even write, I was told that I had no choice but to play at least a little something at the concert. My teacher picked out a very short piece for me. It was barely a page long but with a beautiful melody, yet it was simple and anything but showy and fast. When I stepped onstage with everybody watching me, I knew that for the first time, I would have to rely on my feelings to really play the piece for me. All the anger and sadness and pain that I had tried to keep bottled up seemed to spill out on the strings for me. After I was done, I felt a kind of satisfaction that I had never experienced from my playing before. The music wasn’t about what other people would hear and think. It was about how I was feeling, and to me that was so much more meaningful.
After that experience I decided to leave the school and go to a public school where I could spend my free time fiddling. With fiddling, it’s all about how you feel. If it makes you feel the music more, you don’t have to hold your violin up or even play in tune. A good fiddler can also convey what their feeling to the audience. For instance, at fiddling contests the main thing they look for is “danceability”-meaning that other people can feel the joy you feel while you’re playing, too.
Though it took me a long time to enjoy Eicha trope, after chanting my haftorah a couple of times, I learned to care not only for the melody but I also came to have real feelings for the events we mark on Tisha B’Av. I want other people to try to connect to that day mostly because it’s important to not just focus on the happy parts of history or our lives. As Jews, we need to talk about the times where we didn’t come out on top. It’s one of the things that I think is most honorable about Judaism—we learn to adapt to change. In the same way I did let my tendonitis make me quit, the rabbis from the lost temple didn’t put an end to Judaism when they thought all was lost. They just found a way to make it…… danceable.