Friday, June 22, 2012

Sounds of prayer

As a male mourner, I am often asked to act as Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader).  The experience of leading prayers is a very different than being one of the congregants.  When you are one of the crowd, and especially if you sit toward the back as I do, you see most everyone else.  My sense of the congregation is mainly visual.

But the prayer leader faces away from the congregation.  In this sense, when I lead prayers, I feel both "on the spot" and a sense of singularity.  Others may be looking at me, but I am not seeing them.  My experience of the congregation is mainly auditory.

What do I hear?  I hear their amens to my blessings, the low mumblings as they recite the words of the initial prayers and the clicking of tephilin boxes as those arriving late take out their tephilin.  Often it seems that no one is paying attention.  Only when the kaddishes arrive, first the Kaddish D'rabanan (Rabbi's Kaddish) and then the Mourner's Kaddish, does a sense of unity arise.  This sense dissipates during the P'sukei D'zimrah section (introductory psalms), the response often being sporadic and desultory.  (There are days, however, when everyone seems to be in sync from the get-go. I cannot explain the these day-to-day variations.)

Invariably at some point during the service, a tephilin box will fall off a table or chair and clank on the floor.  Sometimes it seems that tephilin boxes are raining down so many fall.  Or a cell phone will ring or chime.  (This is quite annoying.  I try to remember to silence my iphone as soon as I enter the shul.)

Once "Yishtabach" is uttered, however, the congregation seems to jump to attention.  It is as if batting practice has ended and the game has begun.  After this blessing is completed, there is a brief silence, broken by the prayer leader's short kaddish and Borchu.  The Shma is recited and then the Amidah.  The silent prayer.  Five minutes of complete silence.  A silence that unifies the congregation.  Then the amens of the congregation in response to the public repetition of the prayer. 

To be a male mourner is not only to join into a community of shul goers but also to act as their leader.  You enter community, but then are instructed to go to the front and face away from them,  simultaneously being of them, but at the same time apart from them. Alone but at the center of the community, supported by their voices. 

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