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Playing second fiddle

This article is not about me. It’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary-school music teacher, used to bend down and place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students. This article is not about the time I found my voice. I was a sophomore in college when, on the first night of a dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire. I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard —including me. Everyone, including me, burst into laughter. I was a string bean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s. Neither is it about how I started davening at the amud after becoming a baal teshuvah. I had already finished college when I began to learn alef-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach. But I was determined. Whenever my learning seemed to stall, leading the weekday davening gave me my only real sense of accomplishment. It’s not about how I made the transition to serving as a Shabbos baal tefillah. My rosh yeshivah was old-school when it came to davening. Imperfect nusach was an offense to the tzibbur, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation.

My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny kollel apartment. It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first on Shabbos, then on Yom Tov, and finally on the Yamim Nora’im. A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative tzibbur were the rewards of my labors. Over time, being a Shabbos baal tefillah became part of my identity. This article is not even about my aveilus that, after a quarter-century, disqualified me to stand at the amud on Shabbos once again. This is what it’s about: two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world and paved the road to redemption.* * * The problem with having had a rebbe who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of any less-than-fully-qualified baal tefillah. Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach and dreary niggunim made me wince and soured my entire shul experience. After all, I could do so much better myself. Until I couldn’t. During my 12 months as an aveil, I would only be a participant in Shabbos and Yom Tov davening, not a leader. And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change. What is a tzibbur? Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together k’ish echad b’leiv echad? And what did it say about me if I stubbornly critiqued the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way I could contribute to the whole? The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar on an otherwise perfect picture.

But when it adds itself to the whole, it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself as it brings completion to a thousand other pieces. By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized shul. But add the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and a rush of spiritual energy instantly floods the sanctuary, transporting the congregants to a higher plane. Moreover, one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another baal tefillah, or step into the breach to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles. Is there any expression of avodah more precious before Hashem and more lovingly received before His court and His throne? This is the divine magic of harmony, of achdus, of the splintering of egos before the oneness of the Jewish nation. Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I forgo the recognition of my individual accomplishment… well, what of it? Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage. Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article. In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people. And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband out of allegiance to her family duties despite whatever misgivings she might have had about their decision.

Did Naomi protest Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people? Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives? We would assume so, although Scripture gives us no clues. But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end, when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sent her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepted the justice of her fate alone. But she did not remain alone. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d. Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refused to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from Hashem and from her people? Can we imagine Naomi’s reaction to the daughter who embraced her with a passionate expression of fidelity and a commitment to return with her to Hashem and to her nation? Who must Naomi have been to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moav, a nation so lacking in chesed that its sons could never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations? Who must Ruth have been to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out, penniless, into the unknown? Is this Naomi? gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor, lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered.

But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward a place in her new nation. And it was Ruth, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her wedding night,  who declined the spotlight upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi! This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and Ruth would not have deigned to claim it as her own, however entitled she might have been. Each a heroine, willing to set aside her will for the other’s honor, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony—that path that blended disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their greatgrandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor. When our passion for Torah and our devotion to one another outweigh all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, and we will merit the coming of Mashiach ben David and the divine harmony of the final redemption.

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