When you’re 17, the world is your oyster. Especially half a world away, on the Sea of Galilee, in the mid-1990s.
I mean, who amongst us did not take a nighttime disco boat on the Kinneret to get down to “Here Comes The Hotstepper”? It was generally the same cohort that later on that summer screamed along the NSFW chorus to “Alice” by Gompie in the Underground in Jerusalem.
Unsurprisingly, this would, of course, be the same crew that chanted the extra sauce to “Mony Mony” and ended every dance with “Stairway to Heaven.” I appreciate that it’s a pretty tight Venn diagram, but for me that’s heritage.
Those songs still reverberate a quarter of a century later; I don’t listen to them frequently, but they are glued to moments and memories. Now they are also glued to a very tail-end-of-Gen X/Y playlist on Spotify that I feel bad listening to because it actually makes them less special. After all, there’s something to be said for scarcity; some songs are not meant to be listened to too frequently.
Therein lies the danger with putting an older song on your current playlist: If you listen to it too frequently, it just gets less good. This is why, really, you should only listen to “Alice’s Restaurant” on Thanksgiving, or the “1812 Overture“ on July 4, or “Dirty Water” after a win at Fenway. If you leave them there, they are tied to those markers and won’t become just another song that you play at the gym, or in the car.
It’s easy to ruin things by making them happen too often; we have lots of examples. No, FIFA, the World Cup should not happen every two years. No, NFL, you did not need a 17th game in the regular season or an extra playoff team. No, Disney, we do not need another “Star Wars” series right now (even though “Andor” was magnificent). And, actually, “Fast and the Furious,” just slow your roll for another few years. You’re just making things worse.
It makes good sense that if the special stuff happens all the time, it’s just not…special. That’s why “Chad Gadya” only comes around two nights a year, and why the haunting tunes of “Chapter 3 of The Book of Lamentations“ and “Eli Tziyon“ still make me get goosebumps on Tisha B’Av. It’s also the reason that our family’s quasi-proprietary Chanukah song still gets performed loudly and proudly eight times a year and why I have a deep appreciation for the repetition of the Amidah on Yom Kippur morning; the infrequency of those prayers make them exceptional.
At the same time, it’s hard to make the daily routines of prayer and observance equally spine-tingling; after all, you do them every day, or every week, or at least more regularly than you belt out your favorite Passover song. And as much as you may cultivate those regular habits, it’s a grind to get through them. Abraham Joshua Heschel himself wrote: “There is a perpetual danger of prayer becoming a mere habit, a mechanical performance, an exercise in repetitiousness. The fixed pattern and regularity of our services tends to stifle the spontaneity of devotion. Our great problem, therefore, is how not to let the principle of regularity impair the power of devotion.”
Is the challenge to make the ordinary extraordinary, the regular exceptional, and the commonplace unique? Sounds difficult.
There is an ages-old argument about praying with keva or kavanah and the matter is not settled. If keva is the belief that we must pray regularly as a fixed practice, no matter what, then we can call kavanah the kind of prayer that we offer attentively, purposefully, and with a little more passion. Wouldn’t it be nice to always feel kavanah? Sure, but that’s easier said than done when we all have a lot going on.
Proving the point yet again that Jews can never agree on anything, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 28a) tells us that “the fulfillment of mitzvot does not require intent. That is to say, if one performs a mitzvah, he fulfills his obligation even if he has no intention of doing so.” That seems to be saying that it’s totally OK to go through the motions. Centuries later, however, Maimonides wrote that “prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more.” Thanks for the help, Rambam.
Do what you love, I guess. Just don’t do too much of it.
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