In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 by Rabbi Debra Robbins, we invited Cantor Richard Cohn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.
Music offers us a powerful connection to spiritual practice. Melodies are both fluid—moving through time with flexibility and intention—and grounded—anchored in structures of rhythm, scale, and key. They embody aliveness within a defined structure, mirroring the flow of life itself.
In combination with the harmonies that support them, melodies can convey beauty, form, and emotion. They can touch on areas of comfort, hopefulness, serenity, warmth, and joy (among many others!), even suggesting more than one feeling at the same time. They are received and interpreted differently by each of us, and their resonance can vary from day to day, or even from one repetition to the next. In addition to emotion, form, and beauty, music miraculously transmits something from the formless dimension of spirit into the physical realm of song.
Rabbi Robbins has chosen the last verse of Psalm 27 to be a musical thread in our encounter with the complete text. Why anticipate the conclusion when we’re only starting out? One possible answer is to reflect on the closing words in their relationship to each stage of the journey: How do we move step-by-step toward a strengthening of the heart that lifts us in hope toward an awareness of the holy? Singing (or listening to) a melody corresponds exactly to that process, as we travel from note to note in search of a destination that exists in potential from the very beginning, but that can only be reached by tracing the entire path. As with the psalm itself, repeating the melody again and again can deepen and expand our understanding of the journey.
There are many ways to utilize the recording that accompanies this book. You may wish to begin with mindful listening, perhaps closing your eyes and bringing attention to the sound itself, to the shaping of individual syllables and words, or simply to the unfolding stream of music. You may find yourself starting to hum along, and you can add the words whenever you like. With each repetition, or from day to day, notice what’s new (or old!) in your encounter with the music. If you’d like to sing it on your own, rather than with the recording, see what happens when you try a different tempo or if you sing it more softly or loudly, more contemplatively or emphatically. Before long, you may know the music by heart. It may become an increasingly internal experience, becoming fully integral to your daily practice. If the melody begins to seem a bit less interesting, scale back to singing it only once a day, or sing it an extra time to see if you can bring something fresh to your interpretation.
May this singing practice be heart opening and soul lifting, as you explore the inspiring textures of Psalm 27.
Cantor Richard Cohn serves as Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He’s also served as president of the American Conference of Cantors, and he has been a featured conductor at the North American Jewish Choral Festival.