Jewish life is music-coded. By music alone we can tell what day it is and what we are learning
“And Moshe came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people, he and Hoshea the son of Nun.”
or a month, Moses taught his last words to Bnei Yisrael. Now he had to sum up his prophetic message in a way that would inspire and be remembered. The best way of doing this is by music. The last thing Moses did before his deathbed blessing was to teach the nation a song (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation).
I’m not a particularly musical person, but there are a couple of songs that tug at my heart and evoke deep emotions within me. One is Reb Shmuel Brazil’s “Modeh Ani,” which accompanied me down to my chuppah. The very strains of that tune bring tears of inspiration to my eyes.
There’s something profoundly spiritual about music. Jewish history isn’t so much read as sung. The rabbis enumerated ten songs at key moments in the life of the nation. Many sources speak of the power of music to restore the soul. Many prominent figures utilized the power of music: Shaul, Dovid, Elisha. The Leviim sang in the Temple. Every day, we begin Shacharis with Pesukei D’zimra. When we pray, we don’t read; we sing. When we learn, we don’t recite; we chant. Every text and every time has its own specific melody. There are different tunes for Shacharis, Minchah, and Maariv, different melodies for the weekday, Shabbos, chagim, and Yamim Noraim. There’s one cantillation for Torah, another for haftarah, and yet another for Kesuvim. There’s a particular chant for Torah shebichsav and another for Torah shebe’al peh.
Jewish life is music-coded. By music alone we can tell what day it is and what we are learning.
Music has extraordinary power to evoke emotion. Who can hear the ancient haunting melody of Kol Nidrei and not feel the holiness? Who can hear Eichah and not feel the collective tears of exile?
These last few years, another song has distinguished itself in my life, but for very different reasons — Eitan Katz’s “L’maancha” with the haunting words, “Haneshamah lach.” My father fell in love with this song several weeks before his sudden petirah ten years ago. And when my father loved a song, we’d hear it thousands of times. So when I relive those summer months, the memories always run through my head against the background music of those hartzig words. And then, when my father lay in a coma in the ICU, my brothers sang that song around his bed, moments before his soul returned to its Creator. Haneshamah lach….
Ever since, I couldn’t bear to listen to that song, going out of my way to avoid it at chasunahs and on discs. I couldn’t even talk about it. That song ceased to exist for me.
I once watched a lesson where the teacher showed the difference between physical possessions and spiritual ones. The class was building a paper model of Jerusalem. In the background played a song the class had learned about Jerusalem. At the end of the class, the teacher did something very dramatic. He tore up the model and destroyed the music tape.
“Do we still have the model?” he asked the children. “No. But do we still have the song? Yes. We lose physical possessions, but not spiritual ones.”
G-d is the composer and librettist. We are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of G-d’s song. And faith is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.
Several months ago, I was in the delivery room with my daughter for many hours, awaiting her first birth. Time moved slowly, and the nurse offered to turn on music. “We’ve just upgraded our sound system and can pipe music right into your room,” she said. “We even have a whole chareidi playlist.”
She twiddled some knobs and the beauty and delicateness of orchestral music flowed over us. My daughter relaxed and I smiled. Until we both suddenly recognized the plaintive notes of “Haneshamah lach.”
I clamped my hands over my ears, and my daughter sat up abruptly. “We can’t have that song!” she said urgently. “Please turn it off!” The startled nurse began fumbling with the knobs, but meanwhile the song continued. And suddenly, from a place deep within, I realized I was ready for this.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” I reassured my daughter, “Opa’s sending us a message. He’s right here, connected and watching over us.
Hi, Abba! I whispered.
It was a beautiful baby boy. And he’s named after my father. The song of this neshamah continues.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 861)
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