A few weeks ago a visitor in town stepped up to the omud to lead the mincha davening. He looked like a typical product of the yeshiva world — dark suit, beard, black hat. Nothing about him suggested anything out of the ordinary. Then he started to daven.
It’s hard to explain “nusach” — the flowing chant in which we intone our public prayers — to someone who doesn’t have an ear for it. Just as some people have perfect pitch while others can’t tell Brahms from a buzz saw, some people simply can’t recognize, or reproduce, any semblance of the intonation that characterizes davening. And so, as this fellow began to daven aloud, it took less than five seconds for his astonishing lack of nusach to scream out the only possible explanation: BA’AL TSHUVA!
The repetition of the Amidah prayer that afternoon was profoundly embarrassing. Teenagers snickered openly. A few ba’al haBatim smirked and rolled their eyes. Most of us studiously stared into space, afraid of snickering or smirking ourselves if we caught anybody else’s eye. The fellow at the omud continued, with evident kavanah that was undoubtedly more intense than that of 90% of the people in the room, oblivious to the reactions he was eliciting.
On the way out, the gabbai commented quietly to me, “That was the jazz/reggae version of mincha.”
I couldn’t stop myself from replying, “Actually, I think is was the piano lounge nusach.”
I had occasion to chat with the fellow who had davened, a few days later. He seemed a fine gentlemen, a ba’al middos, an individual of some learning, exactly the type of Jew anyone should be pleased to have represent the congregation. But on each subsequent occasion that I heard his garbled nusach, my skin literally crawled.
I suppose part of my reaction came from the almost obsessive particularity that my rebbe instilled in me when it came to nusach. The way we intone the words of davening, as much as the words themselves, is part of our oral tradition dating back at least as far as the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period.
Beyond that, however, I have no doubt that this fellow (as well as the smirks and snickers that he drew) remind me of myself when I was learning to daven from the omud. I have no doubt that I garbled the davening more than once in my early days, and I’m sure I still slip up from time to time. This is not a reflection that brings me any kind of pleasure.
Rav Saadya Gaon once explained to his students that his level of divine service today made him embarrassed by the inadequacy of his divine service yesterday. For ba’alei tshuva this can be especially acute, like being reminded of our childish behavior in high school or college, or having to endure the frozen images in our mothers’ picture albums preserving our most embarrassing moments. We like to think that we’ve grown to the point where we have exorcised this part of ourselves and buried it in the past. But if we are honest with ourselves we recognize that there’s more of the child still inside us than we would like to admit.
In some ways this may be a good thing. On the one hand, it may help stop us from taking ourselves too seriously. On the other, it reminds us that we still have to grow and prods us out of out complacency. But we don’t like it. And we don’t like being reminded of it, particularly when we‘re already self-conscious and feel that we really should have progressed further than we have.
This fellow who davened so passionately but so ineptly from the omud, who proclaimed his ba’al tshuva origins so innocently and obliviously to all who could hear him, set me so on edge because he painfully reminded me both how far I still have to go and how, in a sense, I’ve come too far, passing for FFB because I’ve learned the drill so well that I can fool most of the people most of the time. I’m embarrassed that I once davened as inexpertly as he still does, but I’m also embarrassed that I no longer daven with the enthusiasm he still has. And I’m embarrassed as well that I seem to have accepted that it has to be one or the other, and that I’d choose my way over his.
At the end of the day, neither will passion compensate for nusach nor nusach for passion. Content without form is nearly as inadequate as form without content. Let’s remain just a little uncomfortable being ba’alei tshuva, but let’s never allow ourselves to become FFBs.