February 1, 2007
Just Sing a Song
Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
"They're Playing Our Song!" is more than just a Broadway musical by Neil Simon. It's a phrase that captures the enchanting power of music.
Hearing a familiar tune carries us back in time to a special moment, to our childhood realms and to the innermost chambers of our heart. Jewish mystics wrote that our souls are violins playing the music of creation; when we play these violins, the divine realms reverberate with it and are fine tuned according to it.
This beautiful analogy means that our actions in this world can affect the whole of creation. The great Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, is credited with saying that had we not received the Torah we should have dedicated ourselves to music study.
The importance of music in the Bible is unquestionable. It appears for the first time in the description of the generations before the flood. In Genesis (4:19-22) we read about Lemech's three sons who were the founders of civilization. One was the first shepherd, the other the first blacksmith and the third was the first musician. We understand that the first two allude to the development of agrarian cultures and technology, but what is the significance of the musician?
Music is the carrier of culture, and before the written word it was the main vehicle of memorizing important texts and transmitting them from one generation to another. Therefore the Torah trope is preserved with such dedication because it is inextricably connected to the carrying of a living tradition. The sages also said that to retain the words you learn, you must chant them with a tune.
In this week's Torah portion we see again the important role of music. When the children of Israel emerged from crossing the Red Sea, they looked behind them in horror to see Pharaoh's chariots and soldiers chasing them through the muddy terrain. To their great astonishment the sea slowly began closing on the Egyptians, making it the last time the oppressed see their oppressors.
The newly liberated nation was overwhelmed with a sense of deliverance. Feelings of joy and gratefulness found proper expression in a spontaneous song, sung simultaneously by Moses with the men and Miriam with the women, accompanied by tambourines. This song was so powerful that more than 1,000 years later the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Meir commented that even the fetuses in their mothers' wombs joined the Israelites in singing.
Yet another 1,000 years later, Rabbi Jacob of Corbiel raised the question of whether it is appropriate to add poems and songs during prayers. He ruled that it is allowed based on the precedent of Shirat Hayam, that magnificent epic poem on the shores of the Red Sea.
"It is written," he argues, "that the Israelites and Moses sang to God, saying that they will sing to God because he is almighty."
The text uses the future tense to indicate that not only at that moment they were singing, but that in any given moment we are allowed and commanded to use poetry, music and song as an integral part of our service of God. In that vein, this Shabbat, in many Sephardic synagogues around the world, people will gather for long sessions of piyutim, or sacred songs, to commemorate the Song of the Sea.
This custom created a vast literature of poems and many discussions in Jewish legal codes. There were, for example, those who argued that it is best to use psalms when praising God since it was written with Divine inspiration, rather then using works by contemporary poets. This argument was refuted by Rabbi Mordechai Abadi from Aleppo, Syria, in his work Shaar HaShir, or The Gate of Song.
In a paraphrase of the talmudic dictum that place and text of Torah learning should be based on personal tendencies and preferences, Rabbi Abadi says that singing sacred songs should also be one with words and music that you feel connected to. So if Rabbi Yisrael Najara does it for you, go ahead and sing his song.
A parallel debate was conducted regarding the type of music used in prayer and liturgy. Many leading Ashkenazic rabbis ruled that we are not allowed to borrow music from the non-Jewish world for use in the synagogue. But the ruling and practice in the Sephardic world, followed by the Chasidic movement, is that music cannot "contract impurity," and therefore any music used with sacred texts is appropriate.
I strongly suggest that you try this at home. Take your favorite tune, one that touches your soul, couple it with words from the prayer that you really like and make it your meditative prayer.
Whether it's Paul Simon, Oum Kalthoum or Albinoni, let the music pave the road for inner peace, just like a bridge over troubled water.
Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com.