These were the words of the scout Caleb, who, along with his fellow scout, Joshua, brought back to the Israelites a positive report about the land of Canaan. Numbers Chapters 13 and 14 recounted that the Israelites greeted their optimism with fear and reproach. It was easier for the masses to believe the pessimistic majority report of ten of the scouts than it was to realize their own potential for success. “The Israelites did “go up,” but only much, much later than they should have, and only when they truly knew what it meant to be free.
“Going up” can refer to facing many types of challenges in our lives. 32 years ago today, I ascended the bimah of Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple, first to sing Bonia Shur’s melodies for the prayers of the Torah service, and, later, to be ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion President Alfred Gottschalk. That “going up” was the first step in my rabbinic journey, which officially began, for me, when I served for three years as assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio. While I said in my interview with Temple Israel’s search committee that “I didn’t necessarily need to be known as the ‘singing rabbi,’” I was on the bimah with my guitar three weeks into my rabbinate. That rabbi-guitar partnership continues to this day.
I don’t know if, back then, I fully realized what I was “getting into” as a rabbi. This past week, I attended, for the 12th time, the Hava Nashira Songleaders’ workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Our Thursday morning service on May 30 began our consideration of the story of the scouts’ travels in the land of Canaan. During Torah study at breakfast on Shabbat morning (which I was privileged to facilitate), we first shared stories of times when we had to overcome hesitation or apprehension in order to do to something we had never done before. Later, the Shabbat morning service offered each of us a chance to join in group aliyot based on aspects of this biblical tale. I took part in two of the aliyot: one for those who had felt, at some point in recent months, like the ten scouts, who “considered themselves as grasshoppers in the view of the Canaanites and in their own eyes”; and another aliyah for those who had exhibited and maintained, at some point in the last year, the positive outlook of Caleb and Joshua, even when some community members doubted our goals or beliefs. Both of those extremes, and everything in between, characterize the rabbinate. My goal as a rabbi has always been to communicate personal values and vision, even in subtle ways, and to have community members learn by example from me and, mainly, from one another, so that we can “go up” and journey on together.
Over the years, Hava Nashira has offered me and many rabbis, cantors, cantorial soloists, songleaders and Jewish educators an opportunity to “go up,” to approach and arrive at a place where we had never been before in terms of our own experiences and abilities. At Hava Nashira, that can include teaching and leading music in front of talented, knowledgeable and, especially, supportive music colleagues. “Going up” might mean leading a service or song session with the composer/songwriter sitting right in front of you, adding his or her voice to the mix. It might mean singing an original song or a cherished favorite at a late-night coffeehouse, or presenting a new original melody for a particular prayer at a sharing session or during worship. Many participants enjoy attending primarily to receive, to listen and to learn. The Hava Nashira community maintains an ongoing online network that nurtures friendships, professional partnerships, and interconnections that impact all corners of the Jewish world. As for me, Hava Nashira continues to infuse my rabbinate – and my soul - with a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and with a constant reminder of the power of communal song.
As I wrote this reflection, someone I know shared this quote (here in slight paraphrase) on Facebook from poet/writer Roy Lessin: “Life’s an adventure, for we don’t know how God will direct us from where we stand now. We need only to trust God to show us the way, who will reveal it in love day by day.” I am grateful to my partners in this, my life’s adventure: my wife Rhonda; our son Adam; my brother and (rabbinic colleague) Steve and other family members; my classmates and other Jewish professional colleagues (rabbis, cantors, educators, soloists, songleaders, and many others); our many partners in enhancing Jewish life in Dayton (Ohio), Topeka (Kansas), Dover (New Hampshire), and Las Cruces (New Mexico); the many members of the greater community with whom I have had the privilege of creating common cause and mutual understanding; and my comrades in song both at “home” and at Hava Nashira, who have helped me make my rabbinate an ever-growing song to God and to the world.