psalms · theology

Sore lungs sing out of sync

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion. 

Why did we weep by those waterways? Some times are harder than others to find songs inside your lungs. Faced with a strange land and held captive by a power you do not understand, it is hard to find the music within.

Some say that we could not sing because we could not stop crying. Every time we imagined we had run out of tears, new wailing broke out of our chests. Panting, we could not hold a note.

Midrash teaches that the rivers of Babylon were the industrial canals of the imperial capital. Where once we had drunk from freshwater springs, we now sat by sewage works and polluted channels. Our choleric lungs heaved and choked the psalms we wished to sing.

There on willow branches we hung up our violins.

Stringed instruments hung on stringed trees. If we cannot make music, maybe these old branches will play our lyres on our behalf. 

Maybe we will sing again, so we won’t lay our tools on the ground, but gently tie them up in knotted bark. We will return to you, violins. 

Maybe we hoped that the long leaves of willows drooping in layers would provide cover so that nobody would know we once used to play such melodies in our religious buildings. Maybe if they don’t know how joyous we once were, they won’t expect us to be joyous again. Pray they don’t ask us to sing.

For the wicked carried us away to captivity, and required of us a song. 

We are in a strange land of captivity. We live in times that people keep calling unprecedented. Six months ago, few of us would have imagined we would be in the midst of a response to a global pandemic. None of us have lived through mass government responses to a pandemic in Britain. It is unusual to realise we do not have the freedoms we once knew.

Even though governments around the world have announced easing of restrictions, we cannot yet return to activities we once knew. We have to be careful, because the captor, Covid, still exists. We have to make choices about how we respond.

The Israelites lasted 70 years in Babylon. We could endure 3 months in our homes.

But in some ways, those 70 years were easier than the ones that followed. In captivity, Jeremiah told us to make the most of where we were because we would not be coming out any time soon. But when Jerusalem reopened, we did not know whether to stay or leave, and every option seemed like it would be the wrong choice.

In some ways, lockdown was easier. We knew what the parameters were and how to operate within them. Now, we are confused about what is the right thing to do is, as the conflicting needs of our mental health, our physical security and our economic livelihoods clash. 

And somehow we are supposed to sing.

How can we sing the song of God in a strange land?

No, we cannot sing. It is one of the highest risk activities. The virus is airborne and transmitted when people dig deep in their lungs and project droplets from their diaphragms into someone else’s mouth. The collective singing involved in synagogue services, music concerts and sports matches is the greatest threat to overcoming the pandemic.

We enter a strange land where, for the first time in many decades, most progressive synagogues will be closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once, Zoom felt like alien soil, although we have come to comfortably inhabit it for our Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Maybe it won’t feel like such a strange land by the time we arrive.

But how can we sing? Didn’t we try collective singing over Zoom? Everyone goes at a different tempo, completely out of synch, creating disharmony and awkward clangs. The first time we tried to sing together in disunity I felt like I had to go back and patch over all the cracks in our voices.

But in captivity, the Israelites learnt that even in the unprecedented land of Babylon, they had to find a way to sing. The Psalms are testament that even when we felt we could not make music, we still composed new material. 

For centuries, the Hassids have rejoiced in singing out of sync. The nign, a wordless song intended to elevate the spirit, finds its strength in discordance and repetition. These mystics sing the same note sequence repeatedly, without aiming for harmony. They trust that, however it is arranged, the tune will reach God. 

Perhaps we, too, can learn to enjoy singing out of sync.

That challenge feels even more pertinent now in a country whose rhythms have fallen out of sync. Some worry about losing their jobs. Some worry about losing their health. Some worry about losing their minds. And, with these concerns, everyone is making different decisions based on their comfort levels.

It is hard to feel like we are not singing in time with our neighbours. Some wish that everyone would just stay inside until we find a cure. Some wish that everyone would relax and go out. We look at each other with confusion, and struggle to find acceptable social norms.

Like the Israelites in Babylon, we have to find ways for sore lungs to sing out of sync. Anyone in the community who does not feel ready to go out yet should be supported to stay home. Anyone who feels they need to see their loved ones should be encouraged. And people who just need to get their hair cut or buy a coffee from a cafe should feel empowered to do so responsibly.

There is nothing wrong with feeling unease. The terrain we stand on is unfamiliar and there is much we do not know. But of all the things we can sacrifice, trust in the other members of our community should not be one of them. 

The reason the Israelites survived their exile was because they knew they could depend on each other. They had different experiences and different aspirations, but knew they were created by the same God.

As we sit by these rivers in a strange land, let us trust each other to sing out of synch, and know that one day, we will return home, and sing together in harmony once again.

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I gave this sermon on Friday 10th July 2020 for Three Counties Liberal Judaism. I thank my housemate, Joanna Phillips, for her support with the audio recording.