The title comes from a Harry Chapin song entitled “Mr. Tanner.” It’s about the owner of a dry cleaning business who has such a beautiful voice that his friends insist he try to sing professionally. It’s a long song, but the gist of it is that he spends his money to arrange a concert, gets panned by the critics, and then never sings again. The chorus repeats that “music was his life; it was not his livelihood.” Singing was intertwined with his life; he didn’t have to turn it into how he made his living.
Knowing how much I love to sing, my son Micah recently asked me why I became a Rabbi instead of a Cantor. Besides the fact that I don’t sing well enough to be a Cantor, my response was essentially akin to “music is my life; it is not my livelihood.” I believe the same can be said about all of Judaism.
Even more than singing myself, what truly moves me is getting others to sing. It’s why I was always a “song leader” rather than a performer. It’s why, when I daven prayers, my goal is to get the congregation to sing with me, not listen to me. It’s why our “Rock & Roll Shabbat” is so different than any other similar service I have ever seen. Most focus on the performance aspect. Ours focuses on the participation aspect.
It’s why we insist that all our B’nai Mitzvah students chant their Torah portions instead of just reading them. Some ask me if they can just read the portion since they have a “terrible voice.” My response is that the chanting is beautiful, whether it’s in tune or not, and I believe that with all my heart.
The sages tell us that the tropes were given to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the Torah. In other words, the idea that we chant in Judaism is as old as Judaism itself. It is impossible to separate Jewish prayer, Jewish text, Jewish history, even Jewish life, from Jewish music. To paraphrase Harry Chapin, music is Jewish life, not Jewish livelihood.
So when you attend services, I hope that you will always feel free to sing out loud with your voice and your heart. I don’t care if you are in tune or not, I don’t care if you mispronounce the Hebrew, I don’t care if you really know a particular prayer or not. I just want you to sing.