Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Passing Thought While Singing

Tonight I rode back to town with a friend of mine who is a professional singer. Unfortunately I was too tired to take full advantage of the opportunity to sing with her during the entire trip (she’s excellent and it’s tremendous fun), but we managed to sing a few songs together before I conked out from exhaustion in the back seat of her car.

One of the songs we sang was “Oh, Sinner Man,” a song I have loved since childhood. (If you ever get a chance, listen to Leon Bibb’s recording of it. It will blow you away.)

After we finished the song, I mentioned to my friend that its lyrics cause me a bit of dissonance, and I don’t mean musically. If I were to perform it in public, I could see myself giving a disclaimer first: This next song is a powerful one, and one of my favorites. But before I sing it, I want to make it clear that I don’t agree with the theology behind it at all.

Why is that? Well, the song takes place at the final judgement at the End of Days. A frightened soul turns to heaven and earth for refuge and finally appeals to God, who rejects him, saying, “Oh, sinner man, you shoulda been a-prayin’.” At the end of the song, the Devil gleefully ushers the poor soul into Hell with the words “Sinner man, step right in.”

I realize that the song reflects a particular time and place in history, and in its own way is a message to human beings to mend their ways before it’s too late. Yet what is “too late”? Is there really such a thing? My friend and I agreed that the message of “Oh, Sinner Man” is pretty much the opposite of the Jewish attitude toward our relationship to God. Jewish tradition teaches that every human being of every faith always has the chance to draw closer to the Creator. God never turns us away when we seek sincerely to amend our lives and connect with the Divine, no matter how badly we may have messed up in the past.

On Yom Kippur—and on every day of the year—God holds the door wide open for each and every one of us and says, “Step right in.”

Gemar hatima tova.

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