What Is In a Musical Note? Or: Therapy for a Rabbi-Cantor

This was Rabbi Saltzman’s sermon during our Dec. 10 Shabbat morning service:

You may be surprised by this, but rabbis and cantors can be good candidates for therapy.  As a seminary student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, following a class, one of my professors, Rabbi Morton Leifman, suggested that I might benefit from therapy.  He observed that in my interaction with other seminary students, I was on occasion too intense and angry.  I was surprised to learn that there were pastoral psychologists who worked with rabbi, cantors, and Holocaust survivors.

I applied to the Brookdale Foundation within the school in order to begin understanding what was going on inside of me, and fortunately, it helped a lot.  As a result over the years, I have from time to time met with therapists who assisted me in understating my life, my attitudes, and who helped me to have good relationships with my wife and children, as well as my congregants and colleagues.

You can imagine that having been a well known, even internationally known cantor, I found it terribly difficult to adjust to such a change and loss of voice twice: once from a virus, and a second time from an auto collision.  Therapy helped me with that as well.

Recently, I have been seeing someone who is helping me make new adjustments to the way I relate to my family – yes, I can still learn.  Again it has helped.  I gave my therapist a recording of me singing, and she actually listened to it.  She wanted to talk about it, not knowing any Hebrew, and she had some questions for me.

She was impressed by my singing, and I explained that was the point of my giving her the CD.  This would help her understand what my work was, what my loss was, and how I suffer in some way to this day from the loss of my ability to sing. She asked about a high note I sang. “What is the note?  How high is it?”  I explained that at that point in the service I was singing something that I wanted to be operatic and regal, like the roar of a lion.

What is in a note?  It is the art of studying singing along with the vocal timbre of the individual.  It is a study in music history, in the history of recorded voices, and a test of technique.  In fact there is no one note by itself of any great significance.  Notes are part of phrases, they are relative to before and after the note, the color, the dynamics, the phrasing, the articulation, and in singing the vowels and consonants.

My approach to singing was artistic, it was art for art’s sake, and in my case, art for the sake of Jewish tradition and the human experience.  Singing can reach and touch anyone as we respond to the sound of the human voice.  While voices do not last forever, they can be a wonderful therapy in and of themselves.  Someone asked, “Does singing tire you after a while?”  The answer is singing is like a fountain when done right.  It is not a strain, it is a joy to sing.

Singing expresses emotions, feelings which cannot be expressed any other way.  It is acoustical and is extended by good acoustics.  My point is that in relation to this, I did not want to sing as if it were artless, like a fine book in a paper bag.  Rather, I sought with my voice to present a memorable service for God and man.  That is what conveyed in a note to the therapist.  I sang the Sh’ma with panache and I was happy to do that for as long as I could.

The loss of this ability caused me to seek therapy, in order to become a rabbi, with a different voice.  One mysterious Armenian who attended my services said to me, “God took your voice so you would be our rabbi.”

What is in one note? Our liturgy, our tradition, our joy and suffering, our triumph.  That note remains with me as an echo, and that echo is still reverberating.

Shabbat Shalom.