When we pray, we speak to God, and when we read from the Torah, we listen to God speaking to us. In this sense, rabbis construct a dialogue during services. Listening is a central value in Judaism. The Sh’ma, “Hear Israel,” is regarded by many Jews as the most important prayer in Judaism, and listening means making space for others to speak and to be heard. And when we want others to listen to us, what could be a more productive and beneficial tool than songs and music?
We learn from our tradition that music is a powerful spiritual tool for teaching and for instilling identity into a community. There are nine songs in the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible including the Torah); the tenth song has not yet been composed. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks pointed out that this is the Song of the Messiah. Music is a beneficial tool to use in dialogue, because it helps us to listen. And, music is a core ingredient of our tradition. It serves as a bridge that connects past, present, and future generations.
Music touches our spiritual being in a very powerful and meaningful way. It stimulates our senses and allows us to go back in time so we can almost smell, feel, taste, hear and see places we visited, relationships we’ve had and situations that moved us. I once visited residents of a nursing home during Shabbat, and I started singing “Oseh Shalom,” to a woman who was in a coma-like state. Her lips moved, weakly, but certainly reciting the words.
At our services, we use special musical sounds that connect us to our history. For example, we sing regular tropes, melodies, when chanting from the Torah, and use different nusach, musical themes, based on the time of the year, the time of the day, and the occasion. A person who regularly attends services may step into an unfamiliar synagogue and would know the time of year just by listening to the nusach used. The High Holy Days’ music theme and the special Torah tropes used during services have a unique ability to stimulate our emotions. Music adds a lofty essence to the prayers’ words.
When we hear our national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” or Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” we feel part of a larger family. Music instills a sense of liberty and patriotism in people. About a year ago, a young Iranian man, Shervin Hajipour, composed music to the words Iranians expressed, yearning for freedoms, and then he sang this song, “Baraye,” meaning, “Because,” which went viral until the Iranian government imposed a blackout. The Iranian regime, feeling threatened by the power of music, arrested Shervin, but the anthem he composed kept touching people outside of his prison walls, to as far as Los Angeles, where he won, in absentia, a Grammy. He is currently on bail in Iran, awaiting a trial that could lead to a six-year imprisonment and a prohibition from ever leaving the country.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks said that faith is like music. Just as musical notations integrate and connect with one another, religion is connected by one occurrence to another, one life to another, one era to the next. Music is what binds all of our experiences, and allows us to feel as members of a distinguished family or tribe. He says, “Faith has the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.”
Through masterful poetry displayed in “Haazinu,” our greatest leader, Moses, reminded the Israelites of their chronicles and their future purpose. Even though Moses, the person, died, his words and especially his songs will remain an eternal part of our identity. With the song, “Haazinu,” Moses etched in our ancestral DNA, guidance for prosperity and success. Moses promised the people of Israel, with the song “Haazinu,” that their good deeds would be engraved on God’s rock.
As we ask, with traditional melodies and songs, to be written in the Book of Life during these High Holy Days, 5784, I pray that our mistakes will be written on “God’s sand.” And by true repentance, accompanied by the power of our words, our music and intention, God’s winds of forgiveness will wipe away all of our bad deeds and hold onto the good.
Shanah Tovah v’Gmar Chatimah Tovah. Θ
Rabbi Idan Irelander is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavat Olamin North Andover.