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What we have in mind

Shabbat Hagadol Tzav - Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Benjamin Britten composed his first piece of music at age six. His teacher, Frank Bridge, sometimes reduced the young composer to tears when he played his work by demanding, “Is this really what you have in mind?” Music, Bridge held, must be an honest reflection of the composer’s insight.

The same is true of prayer — a subject dear to the interpreters of this week’s parsha, Tzav. The portion begins: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying.…” Since the word “saying” (lemor) is in the infinitive, it has been read as, “Command Aaron and his sons to say.” But to say what?

One possibility is, “to say prayers.” Tradition associates the sedra as an implicit acknowledgement that the priestly sacrifices would someday give way to verbal prayer.

Prayer, however, is like music — an art form in its own right. As such, it ought to obey the advice given to Benjamin Britten: to express “what we really have in mind.”

But wait: Britten composed music; he didn’t just play what others had written. Does Bridge’s advice apply to people who do just play the music? Don’t performing musicians merely follow the notes?

Not at all. Musicians regularly interpret the score; that’s where their artistry resides. The same is true of other performers — actors, for example, who interpret the play or script. Prayer too is a performance art, through which those who pray are asked to make the lines they say their own. When praying, we too should ask, “Is what we are saying really what we have in mind?”

That question applies especially this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, “The Great Shabbat.” Tradition deliberately misreads the name as Shabbat Haggada, the Shabbat on which we prepare for Passover eve.

My teacher, Professor Samuel Atlas, used to ask us why the rabbis insisted that even if we all were wise enough to know the Haggada by heart, we would still be obliged to recite it annually. The answer, he proposed, is that the story means something different every year. Like music, the Haggada is supposed to be an honest reflection of “what we have in mind” from year to year.

That means we actually have to have something in mind — we must discover in advance how we intend to interpret the seder’s story afresh. What questions shall we put to those who sit around our seder table, lest they miss the point and do nothing more than read last year’s script all over again?

The seder first came into being not with the “Four Questions,” but with a spontaneous question that launched the night’s discussion. So try this. When the Four Questions have been asked, ask your guests why this seder night is different from all the others. What is new this year? How are we — personally, our country, the Jewish people, the world itself — in need of deliverance in ways we might never have thought of had the past year not gone by the way it did?

“Say prayers,” God commanded — prayers that are like music! As we go through the Haggada, ask: “Is this really what you have in mind?” We should be able to say, “You bet it is!”

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