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Music: The Window to the Soul 

Music’s special place in Yiddishkeit

Every period on the Jewish calendar holds some special significance, and Sefirah is no different. No weddings, no haircuts, and — sorry, no music. It seems that people find it particularly difficult to come to terms with the ban on music during this time.

When I was a child, my father owned an orchestra, and I grew up around singers and concerts, so I totally get it. This was always a difficult challenge for me. And clearly, I was not alone. Today we have an entire industry of a cappella music CDs, designed specifically for the Sefirah period.

The kinds of questions rabbanim receive during these weeks clearly indicates an intense thirst to circumvent this restriction against music. Can I just practice my instrument? Can I listen to music while I work out at the gym? While traveling in the car to keep from falling asleep? What about slow, emotional music? What if I make a siyum? And the list goes on and on. To keep away from music for just a few weeks proves to be quite the feat.

But I want to reflect, if I may, on a message that we can all learn from this ban against music during Sefirah. What is the practical takeaway here?

Music’s Connection to Torah

To arrive at our point, we must first appreciate, on a more general level, music’s special place in Yiddishkeit.

The author of Pe’as Hashulchan (in his introduction) quotes the following incredibly bold statement made by his rebbi, the Vilna Gaon: Most secrets of the Torah can best be understood and appreciated only through the art of music. Only music has the unique power that enables a person to fully delve into the profound and esoteric ideas of the Torah and properly understand them.

But how does this work? What is this profound connection between music and Torah?

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explained this connection. Music is more abstract than any other art. It affects us not on an intellectual, rational level but on a deep spiritual level. It washes over us and affects us in ways that are impossible to explain. Think about the times a beat has got you tapping your feet before you even realized it. Or the way background music is used in plays, shows, or videos to heighten every kind of emotion you can name. Why does music possess that unique power?

Music is the most direct route to the soul. That’s its power. That’s how it affects us. It touches us in ways we can’t find words to express — because it enables us to connect to our neshamah. The transcendent job of a song’s melody is to open up one’s neshamah to the deeper message that is at the heart of that song.

Yaakov Shwekey, the world-renowned singer, recalls a moving story about the power of music he heard from the chief rabbi of Tiberias. The rabbi’s wife was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, and the doctors decided to perform a very complex and dangerous surgery to try to save her. They told her husband that if she didn’t regain consciousness by seven days post-surgery, her chances of recovery would become extremely minuscule.

The surgery was done and the days started to pass, and the rebbetzin was not waking up. The rabbi and his family understandably were feeling anxious and fearful, but there was little they could do besides pour out their hearts in prayer. On the seventh day post-surgery, with feelings of desperation creeping in, the rabbi passed by a marketplace on the street where he overheard the beautiful song “Rachem” piercing the air — the heartful, penetrating melody of a Yid pleading with Hashem to send forth salvation.

In a spontaneous reaction, he ran into the store, bought the CD, and made a quick dash to the hospital. With time running out, he sprinted into his wife’s hospital room, put the headphones over her ears, and started to play the song. His wife suddenly and miraculously woke up at the very moment the song ended. She later told her husband that somehow the song “Rachem” had aroused her soul, prompting her to immediately wake up. Genuine Jewish music is truly the song of the soul.

That, according to the Vilna Gaon, is why music is intrinsically connected to Torah understanding. Music can open a person’s neshamah, and certain profound concepts of Torah can only be appreciated and absorbed when the neshamah has been activated in its full glory. Music can thus be used as a medium of enabling the Torah to penetrate the soul. In other words, music is the window to the soul, and the soul is the window to the Torah.

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz explained that each of the instruments used to praise Hashem mentioned in Tehillim 150 — shofar, harp, and flute, among others — elicits a different emotional response; one arouses happiness, another evokes tears, and another encourages deep reflection. The general message here is that one must serve Hashem with every emotion in his system.

The Radak (Tehillim 4) explains that each chapter of Tehillim was intended to be sung with musical accompaniment, each with its own designated instruments and melody. The reason for this is that Dovid Hamelech composed each chapter with the intent to arouse very specific thoughts, understandings, and emotions.

Refreshing Our Relationship with Music

To sum up, music is the window to the soul, and through tapping into the soul, one is able to better acquire the Torah.

Now we can return to the message of Sefirah. As an expression of mourning over the deaths of 24,000 holy students of Rabi Akiva, we don’t listen to music during this period of the year. But perhaps we can also take with us a deeper message about our general relationship with music.

We are now approaching the day of Matan Torah, that special day on which we recommit to accepting, fulfilling, and learning the Torah. Perhaps during the weeks leading up to Kabbalas HaTorah, we are meant to re-invent our relationship with music as well, which will enhance our ability to succeed in acquiring the Torah.

To renew our relationship with music, we need a few weeks to totally disengage from it. We need a complete reboot of our system, total abstention from all music, to think about what real music is and isn’t. Which music is actually soul-penetrating, which music is just noise?

Is the song being played in my home something that helps me get more in touch with my soul, or is it something that pulls me away? Is the deeper message of this melody something that I want to integrate into my soul? During this period we stop listening to all music cold-turkey in order to reflect and perhaps refresh our relationship with it — before applying ourselves to the ultimate soul-service, Hashem’s Torah.

Let’s all take stock at this moment to ensure that we are utilizing the tremendous gift of genuine soul-stirring melody, rather than being infiltrated by the “music” loaded with impurities stemming from the outside world. Now is the perfect time, while we prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah, to ensure that our neshamos are properly fine-tuned, in top form, at full strength, and ready to delight in the most sublime and exalted existence, the holy Torah.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013)

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