“But I have promises to keep”


Today the first December snow fell on Szolnok—this is a view of my street—so it’s fitting that I will be teaching my ninth-grade students “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” this week. But it’s fitting in other ways, too; I think of the poem’s gentle contemplation and humor, its tension between digression and direction, its humor and questions, and its final dreamy turn toward duty.

The teaching is going beautifully; I am grateful for the school and hope to stay there a long time. I am in no way ready compare schools here with schools in the U.S.; one school is not the same as schools in general, and I am still learning how things work. But besides that, I have something else to tell right now.

On November 22, the rabbi called me with a question. The shul was badly in need of a chazzan (cantor); would I be willing to serve in this role every other Shabbat (when I already come to shul)? I said yes, not because I felt ready, but because I would take on the learning. It isn’t just a matter of singing well, or knowing Hebrew, or even knowing the nusach and melodies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the cantor’s responsibilities in his essay “The Vocation of the Cantor,” which must be read slowly and carefully. The cantor does more than sing; he or she communicates with the congregation and the people of Israel, goes deep into prayer, senses the right melodies for the right times, responds to the text and the moment, and brings out internal truth.  But there’s a heimish side to it too; often the chazzan is someone in the shul who has taken on the role. That’s the case here.

The role sounds daunting, but no, it’s just immense. If we don’t confront immensity at some point, what are our lives for? Life is dreary and delusive if we’re always looking down at tasks we’ve finished and packaged up, things we can check off a list or click on a phone. So I said yes and started preparing, and realized, early on, that I could not check anything off a list. I learned melodies; I started learning a new nusach. I went over familiar and unfamiliar text again and again. I remembered chazzanim and melodies and chants. It still seemed too big for me, and then I  realized that was how it should feel.

It went beautifully, and so the beginning has begun. The rabbi introduced me warmly as the new chazzanit (female chazzan), and everyone gave me a “Shehecheyanu.” As soon as I started and  heard people joining in, I knew things would be fine. I also had a chance to leyn Torah (the first three aliyot of Vayishlach: that is, Genesis 32:4-13) and to speak about these verses.

Verses 10 through 13 of Genesis 32 are sometimes my favorite in all of Torah. Jacob has just started heading home from the house of Laban, with his two wives, servants, and animals. He has crossed the Jordan. But after hearing from his messengers that Esau is coming to see him with four hundred men, he becomes afraid and divides his company into two camps. But then he has a crisis of doubt:

י  וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק:  יְהוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי, שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ–וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ. 10 And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will do thee good;
יא  קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. 11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.
יב  הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו:  כִּי-יָרֵא אָנֹכִי, אֹתוֹ–פֶּן-יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי, אֵם עַל-בָּנִים. 12 Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.
יג  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ, הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ; וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. 13 And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’


Part of what I love is that Jacob can stop himself in a big mistake. The trope brings this out; in verse 11, the first word is “katonti,” which means “I am not worthy,” “I am insignificant,” or “I have fallen short.” The first half of the verse has to do with the goodness that God has shown him; the trope etnachta sets this off from the second part, which has to do with Jacob himself. The second part divides again into two parts, the first having to do with Jacob’s crossing of the Jordan (which God commanded him to do, in commanding him to return home) and the second with his becoming two camps (which he did out of fear). So this “katonti” can be felt in the very division of the verse; he himself has been divided in two. The trope indicates these halves through the zakef katon melodic phrase. This Jacob sees his division and puts it into words, not only his own, but words of God; through quoting God twice (in verses 10 and 13), he enters into dialogue.

If he had not stopped to think about what he was doing, to remember the promises and his shortcomings, then he might not have wrestled with God that night or reconciled with Esau the next day. Who knows? I can’t say this for sure. But to me these verses suggest, among other things, the power of seeing one’s own errors, of pausing, thinking, and remembering. They have extraordinary beauty in Hebrew and have been made into a song. I have returned to them many times over the past few years; when I first read them, I understood the thirteenth verse as God’s response to Jacob in the moment. Now I read it differently but still sense Jacob hearing the holy words in their full  life, through remembering them and speaking them aloud. In that sense he does what a chazzan does.

Now I turn my thoughts to the week: to teaching, the move to a new apartment, and much more. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Budapest Festival Orchestra concert I attended last night! But I still lack internet access at home, the cafe time has flown by, and I have much to prepare for tomorrow.


The Hebrew text and JPS translation are courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website.

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  1. “Le calme enchantement de ton mystère” | Take Away the Takeaway

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