The Night of Conscious Watching
Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in
— L. Cohen
It was some time in the days just before Pesach that year that the Congregation was going broke. Someone said maybe we should pray for sustenance. That was not an unusual idea to me, because I suppose that is what I was doing. I was confident, in some fanciful way, that everything would turn out all right because it just felt so good at the shul. The music, the teachings, the study circles, everything felt so good to me. We did not have two nickels but we had a load of soul. It is no shame to be poor (no honor either), but I did not know what to do about the money problem, so I did nothing. Or maybe I was praying for help.
We did not have a lot of kids in the school, but the ones we did have were learning well. The kids in my class loved Hebrew school so much I actually heard a parent say these words: “if you don’t behave yourself, I won’t take you to Hebrew school next week.” Imagine that.
The music and prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning had continued to grow more beautiful and more poignant. My musical partner Will’s presence had grown into a rich musical and personal association, and was inspiring me to deeper levels of musicianship. The spiritual approach to music that I had pursued was clarifying for me by the week; I felt an accelerated sense of learning and accomplishment in music, in teaching, in writing, in all ways. This is certainly the highest reach of the synagogue and my profession that I have yet experienced, I thought.
Still, we were broke.
At the Board meeting before Pesach, the financial news was so bleak that my paycheck was delayed several weeks because we did not have the cash in hand to cover it. I left the Board meeting early. It made me sad, but I did not know what to do about it, so I did nothing. Or perhaps I prayed about it. Everything was going to be all right, this I often say to myself.
The night after the depressing Board meeting was Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that falls before Pesach. I went over to the synagogue, there was a small group that night but as usual the feeling was strong.
My friend Todd’s father had passed away in Detroit, and it was on my mind to speak the Kaddish on his behalf.
In the tradition, Shabbat HaGadol is one of the few times a year that the rabbi gives a formal discourse, usually on matters concerning Pesach. I had a hundred wonderful ideas percolating in my head about Pesach, but as soon as Will arrived, I launched into the music and it held me in its arms for several tunes without letting go.
The first tune was the stately melody for Yigdal that I made up, maybe found in a book, I am not sure anymore, the melody that also works so elegantly for Adon Olam. I had been enjoying singing it lately to Yigdal because Yigdal is one of those texts that I find interesting precisely because it is clumsy in its reach for dogma in a culture that resists such efforts, and because the melody is unmatched to the text.
I played through all the early melodies of our minhag with an uncharacteristic lid on. I rarely play this way, I usually play out, beyond my capabilities really, reaching for something I am not quite ready to achieve musically, but not that night. That night, I played within my abilities, tight, disciplined, with better tone and attack than I usually achieve though sacrificing some of my reach. It sounded beautiful to me.
There was something else happening that night that I wanted to share with my friends, the holy fellowship of prayer who accompanied me that night, but I could not speak. I wanted to speak but I could not. I could not stand either, I played with the same steady burn throughout the service, but I could not speak, so I sat and played and sang. I prayed.
My father Harry died during Pesach twelve years before. I thought of him often, talked of him on occasion, but I had never descended into the depth of my sadness over his death. My daughter was in the hospital at the same time that my father was struggling for his life, so I was flying back and forth between hospitals in St. Louis and Detroit, and when Harry died, I was not there.
I miss him most that time of year, but that night, Shabbat HaGadol, I not only felt the ache of his absence, I felt his presence.
As a young man, my father was a wonderful musician. He had an opportunity to study at a conservatory, but for this, but for that, it did not work out. He ended up in another life. Still, he loved music, played beautiful records around the house (Mahler on Sundays), and paid close attention to the many sounds that I brought home.
When he died, I had not yet found my own entirely personal sound. I have it now.
That night, Shabbat Hagadol, twelve years after his death, I felt that I was playing for him, as if I was saying: this is my sound, I found it. I want you to hear it. It was the resolution of something left undone: here, I am sharing my sound with you. It was as if I was unpacking my music and playing for him, discussing it with him, turning it over for him and him alone; an intimate share with Harry over something he loved the most, music. Something of him had returned to me that night, and something I had I was able to give to him. Something that had been undone got done. I honored him with music.
I was playing for him that night, of that much I am sure. The more I played, the more intimate we became. There were times I could hardly sing my voice my breath overwhelmed by emotion, some quiet tears, but beneath it all was his gentle, decent, attentive presence. I felt him listening. He was always such a good listener.
At the first seder, I was telling two friends across the table about this experience. I wondered what your father was like, my friend said to me. A little sad, beautiful, delicate, lofty, a bit distracted, sweet, mysterious, I said. I was never certain I knew the inside person, though when he opened to me, he opened in depth and in beauty.
As I described my experience of Shabbat HaGadol to my friends at the seder, it was a story. I did not sense Harry’s presence at the seder. Later that night, much later, almost morning, I wrote this story.
There is a night described in Torah, the night before we left Egypt, when we paused. We knew we were leaving by morning, but the night before we paused in our preparations. It is called leil shimurim, hard to translate, “the night of conscious watching” I prefer. The word shimurim is used only in this verse, twice, but only here in the entire Hebrew Bible:
“It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt. It is a night of conscious watching of God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for God; a conscious watching for all the children of Israel for their generations” (Exodus 12: 41 – 42).
What did we do the night before we became free? Knowing we were leaving in the morning, what did we do the night before, when we paused, this night of conscious watching, what is it? A conscious watching, reciprocal, for God for us, a spirtual intimacy, something that was left undone, done?
The sense that though there is uncertainty and even danger, everything is going to be all right. We are vigilant and confident.
It is used twice in that verse; maybe this is what happened on Shabbat HaGadol that year, maybe this was my night of conscious watching for Harry, maybe it was Harry’s night of conscious watching for me. In addition to everything else.
In early 2016, baby Harry was born in St. Louis Missouri to my son and daughter in law, the first grandchild to my wife and myself. There is not a sentence I utter that is not poetry when I mention his name.