Rabbi's Column | Congregation Beth Am

Rabbi's Column

Singing with the Choir

by Cantor Jaime Shpall

I sang in my first choir at the age of five. My sister and brother were already members of our temple choir (not coincidentally named the Zimriyah) and although I was a few years younger than most of the other kids, I was allowed to participate. I suppose it helped that my family were regular Shabbat service attendees, and as long as I could behave myself, I could tag along with my siblings. My behavior was never a problem though, because I was hooked from the start.

There was something about that first experience that I still feel to this day, and it made me a lifelong lover of group singing. Looking back, I would describe it as the magical feeling of transcendence that comes when you stop hearing your own voice and become part of the whole; a feeling of complete focus, timelessness and joy.

I’ve experienced the same feeling in other settings too, such as during communal prayer, and even singing around a campfire with a group of friends. The feeling is the same — pure bliss.

For the past few months I have been blessed to be a part of an amazing choral experience with our Beth Am volunteer choir. We took on the wonderful, though daunting, task of learning and performing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Paul Ellison, our wonderful choir director, lovingly and deliberately taught us our parts. At first it came across as dissonant and awkward, but as we got deeper into it, the music revealed itself to us and it transformed into something tender, sweet and exuberant. The rehearsals seemed to fly by and through the process a group of individuals became one. Working together as a group and working through the music together, we became a holy community, a kehillah kedosha.

The first Shabbat in March we read from Parshat Vayakhel. The name of this parashah has a secret message related to choral singing. The word vayakhel literally means — “and he (Moses) gathered." The word kahal or kehillah, which means community, has the same root, kuf, hey, lamed. The Hebrew word for choir, makheilah, is also built on this root, kuf, hey, lamed. I find it interesting that the word for choir in Hebrew is built on a root that connotes coming together more than singing. It recognizes the coming together of individuals to create a whole. I bet the person who created the modern Hebrew word makheilah was a choral singer, because when we gather together to sing in a choir, a makheilah, we create a holy community, a kehillah kedosha.

At Beth Am, a diverse group of close to 50 singers came together to learn and perform Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Each one of us came alone to that first rehearsal. Some of us were unsure if we were up to the task. We worried. We hoped our past experience would be enough and we worried how we could ever pull such a difficult piece together. But once we started, the worries disappeared and we became immersed in the music. We left our individual selves behind, and became one singular vessel, a container that held the very presence of God.

Research shows that choral singing provides many physical benefits: it strengthens the immune system, it provides a workout, it improves your posture and it helps with sleep. Singing also provides emotional and psychological benefits: it lowers stress levels, improves mental alertness and acts as a natural antidepressant. Singing provides myriad social benefits: it can widen your circle of friends, boost your confidence and broaden communication skills.

With the joyful month of Adar upon us, let us remember the joy and holiness that comes from communal singing. As William James once said, “I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing." Chag Purim sameach and happy singing!

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).