Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Repeat: Shaniti

Repetition. It’s at the heart of Jewish life. Every day, shachris mincha maariv. Every year, the cycle of festivals. Even the language in which we talk about law involves repetition – the bearers of the tradition in our (until late antiquity) oral culture were the Tannaim, the Repeaters, those who carried accurate renditions of oral legal and narrative traditions in their heads, to be recalled at need. Tanu rabbanan, our Rabbis taught, but literally, our Rabbis repeated. Tenan, we teach in our mishnah text, but literally, we repeat.

The essence of ritual is repetition – to create familiarity, to create echoes and impressions of how one reacted to a situation in the past, or how our ancestors reacted, we repeat their stories, to inspire us through familiarity, and, one hopes, informing through repeated exposure. By repeating the command to love God with all one’s heart, one’s life, and one’s money, we hope that in extremis, we will know to do the right thing instinctively, to sanctify God’s name by living, or by dying, as the case may require. By repeating the words of the Torah, we fulfill the minimal daily requirement to learn Torah. Using the Misinai tunes for the High Holidays, tunes that Ashkenazim have used since at least the 14th century (according to Cantor Goffin), we build the emotions necessary to frame our teshuvah experience by linking with every other Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we’ve ever experienced – the familiar strains leading into Barechu rise, evoking the season and bringing us, emotionally, home.

The Jewish Museum is hosting a display of contemporary art building on this theme. See Richard McBee’s review in this week’s Jewish Press. They bring home themes of daily repetition that forms our inner lives – weekly or daily donations of charity, repeated lighting of Chanukah candles, invoking the mitzvoth with the Ner Mitzvah – a set of 613 candles marked with each of the mitzvoth. It looks like an interesting exhibit.

No comments: