Marking time Musically

This week we marked the new month of Tevet on Monday, and will also read about the very first mitzvah (commandment) G-d gives to the children of Israel as they exit Egypt – keeping a lunar calendar by marking the first day of each month. It seems an odd commandment to choose for the first one ever given to this infant nation. The keeping of time, however, remains a central feature of all of our lives, and often creates challenges and tensions between adults and children. We are intricately tied to watches, clocks, schedules, and calendars, and we mark and measure the passage of time obsessively. At Gesher, we celebrated the new moon with the recitation of Hallel (praise) in our Tefillot (prayers), and the marking of time was raucous, joyous, musical and rhythmic.

The tradition at Gesher for reciting Hallel includes a cadre of students, mostly 8th grade boys but others as well, who pick up drums and other percussion instruments, and move the Kahal (community) through these especially upbeat and joyous prayers with surprising skill and rhythm. They listen carefully to the student leaders of the service (often 5th graders), working with only eyes and ears to coordinate the singing and the beat. I’ve been in a number of school and camp settings for services, and this is unusual, in a very good way.

Students are leading the service, but more than that, students are engaged in the creation of a space in which joyous prayer is the default mode. How many adults can say that they know how to do that? If I had to guess, I bet that less than 50% of the 3rd-8th graders in the room understand much of what they are singing, though they will learn the meanings of these prayers during their time at our school. In the moment, however, students are raising their voices together to mark the passage of time with joy.

We sing Hallel on Rosh Chodesh (the new month), and during other special holiday days in the Jewish calendar. I’ve always loved the special tunes, and it is one of my favorite services. Participating in Hallel here at Gesher has been a wonderful reminder of the sometimes untapped potential for leadership and joyous energy we get when we trust the students to take true ownership of their time.

Ironically, it is during these musical communal moments marking time that many of us don’t feel the passage of time at all. Perhaps that is why marking the new month was given as the first commandment for the nation (not the first commandment in the Torah)–if we are going to shift into a communal identity, then there is nothing better than musical rituals, syncing our voices and bodies to the same rhythm, to help us grow together.

Shabbat Shalom,