Seeking a Spiritual Sucker Punch

"Mount Sinai" by Jan Domela

"Mount Sinai" by Jan Domela

A mountain covered with smoke and fire. A booming voice calling out from everywhere. A loud blast shakes the very foundation of the earth. People are terrified. The scene is so dramatic that some say even the angels are terrified.

The story of the Israelites accepting the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai reads like the setting for a scene from a sci-fi movie. We find the text, known in the liturgy as Atah Nigleita, in the middle of services on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As a cantorial student, I learned how to chant this traditional text. The melody has a grandiose sound, but in the end, it’s sung a capella and I couldn’t figure out how anyone was supposed to know what was going on. Even when I handed out the translation to my congregation and asked them to follow along, how were they going to feel terror and awe when the musical style was a century out of date? And if they don’t feel terror and awe, why bother?

When I lead worship services, I want to build a bridge between God and your kishkes, your gut. I want to find a way to bring the text, the music, and the moment together into a spiritual sucker punch. If we’re praying for peace, let’s find our fervent desire for a better day somewhere in our souls. If we’re praying for healing, let us channel our terror of mortality and the grief of loss into the hope of a long, healthy life with those we love. The story told in Atah Nigleita features God’s booming voice, fire and smoke on the mountain, angels in terror. The text is meant to remind us of how small and powerless we are. Just before we ask for forgiveness for a year’s worth of communal sins, first we remember how fragile we are.

But if you just sit nicely and listen to the cantor sing and think to yourself, well that was simply lovely, then the chance of connection with the grand theme of the day is lost. Rock music provides a means to ratchet up the tension in this musical story. A screaming guitar fuzzed up with distortion, crying out to God with soaring licks and bends that seem to strive toward the heavens. Atah Nigleita tries to capture the grandiosity of the story at Mt. Sinai. Paired with electric guitar on overdrive, this new arrangement means to renew the feeling of awe in the piece that Adolph Katchko created nearly 80 years ago.

This is my fervent prayer for the High Holy Days: “God, let my prayers to You be powerful enough to knock me off my feet.”

This is one of a series of posts exploring the intersection of rock and spirituality, leading up to the release of In Pursuit, an album of original Jewish hard rock.  Sign up for the mailing list to learn more.