My Torah Service
was commissioned by a private individual in New Haven, Connecticut in 1966, and was first performed by a group of Yale University students at a synagogue in Woodbridge, Connecticut.
The Torah Service
occupies a central position in the synagogue, for it is here that the Torah, comprising the Five Books of Moses, is removed from its protective ark, reverently yet joyously displayed and then rolled out to the portion designated by the date to be read by members of the congregation. At the end of each annual cycle, the scroll is rewound, and the reading begin anew with the words: “In the beginning…”. This ceremony is marked by the exuberant festival of Simchas Torah.
Of all the artifacts in Jewish life, it is the Torah alone that is held in veneration. For the Torah is the deepest source of Jewish history and Jewish belief. All basic wisdom is supposed to flow from its teaching. No amount of devoted study of any aspect of it is considered excessive.
In the synagogue service, the prayers that surround the actual reading from the Torah are compilations from many sources, from the Psalms, Numbers, Chronicles, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Lamentations. They do not merely shape the sense of anticipation that leads to actual contact with the holiest of books, but they evoke a sense of resolution that follows the readings. They also contain significant references to a remote past. These allusions, once identified, make the remote past seem very near and contribute to a remarkable sense of continuity and communion. For example, concerning the opening of the Ark, the most eminent authority on the Daily Prayer Book, Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, has written:
"The taking out of the Scroll of the Torah from the Sacred Ark, as well as its return thereto has for over a thousand years formed the solemn and dramatic centre of the public service on Sabbaths and Festivals. The prayers by the reader, and the congregational participation in those prayers by means of responses and sacred acts, are the growth of over 1500 years.
“Vay’hi Binsoa” (and it came to pass…), Rabbi Hertz continues: “This is the invocation prayer of the children of Israel in the wilderness, whenever the Ark of the Covenant went forward. The Ark of the Covenant, guiding the Israelite tribes in their desert wanderings, typified God in front of his people the Divine Presence protecting them, and leading them on to victory. We still feel the thrill of sacred enthusiasm that animated our fathers of old when they heard these words.”
The service text continues with the line “Kumoch Adonoy” (Rise up, O Lord, and Thine enemies shall be scattered…). “The impressive war-cry of truth against error, of righteousness against sin.” Followed by “Ki Mitzion” (For out of Zion shall go forth the Law). “These words (Isaiah) are taken from the Prophet’s sublime vision of the Messianic age…. When right, not might, shall then rule the world.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary and moving of these historical allusions occurs at the end of the Torah Service
(“Ki Lekach Tov”; “Etz Chayim”) where the Torah is compared to a “tree of life,” its teaching are “good doctrine” and its “ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Suddenly, without transition, the mood changes. At “Hashivenu,” we read: “Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall return: renew our days as of old.” The special eloquence of these words lies in the fact that “originally they were spoken 2500 years ago after the burning of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. From the depths, Israel then prayed for the soul-communion with God that had marked its life in the olden days.”
I have been reluctant to encourage concert performances of a service of worship because a concert rendition preempts active participation by the congregation, result in a kind of passivity and distance. The synagogue does not have a long tradition of large scale compositions which embody the essential elements of the prayer narrative: Oratorios, Cantatas, Requiems, and Masses are unknown in Jewish religious practice. (The Sacred Service
of Ernest Bloch is an atypical exception.) While these forms are capable of expressing deep spiritual sentiment, they do not engage worshippers in direct, active involvement. Even the glorious Cantatas of Bach, while often referring to relevant chorale tunes and texts familiar to congregants, offer at most a final chorale for congregational participation.
In my Torah Service
and Friday Evening Service
the intent was to design a distinct structure for active worship. The prayers are intrinsic and essential and they are expressed by the rabbi, the cantor and the congregants; the music adds another dimension, offering commentary and character.
In an effort to evoke the context of an actual Torah Service we have asked Cantor Singer to read abbreviated portions of the relevant prayers so that some sense of the function of the music can be understood.
The opening meditation “Yih’yu L’rotzon” (“May the words of my mouth”) does not properly belong to the Torah Service
at all, but immediately precedes it.