By Cantor Lorna Wallach
This post originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the The Bulletin of Congregation B’nai Israel.
Where does your mind take you when you hear music? Are some melodies more emotive than others? Each of us, no doubt, has songs strongly associated with our memories and feelings. For many of us, this is true of Jewish music, too! Does your heart swell with pride when you hear Hatikvah? Or when the Hava Nagila melody is amplified at a ball game? Can you close your eyes and actually see the golden glow of the Kotel when you hear the poetic words of Naomi Shemer’s song, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav? Even if you never lived in “Anatevka,” do you feel as though you are in that town when you hear “Sunrise, Sunset?”
The music of our liturgy can also evoke memories and emotions. Singing Shalom Rav together on Friday night helps us to leave the stress of the week behind us and experience the serenity of Shabbat. Hearing just the first few notes of the Kol Nidrei melody is enough for some of us to feel transported and in the moment of such a solemn Jewish Holy Day. I believe that we have all experienced the power of music at some point in our lives.
Particularly in Jewish prayer, where music has always played an important role, I’ve heard many people comment that it is often the melodies of the prayers or singing together as a community which uplifts them, inspires them, or strengthens their connection to G-d and to their Jewish heritage. In the words of Goethe, “Religious worship cannot do without music. It is one of the foremost means to work upon man with an effect of marvel.” This is the power of music and of songs. It is universal. Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch defines song as “an inspired or rapturous expression of what some external event has revealed to the inner self, that which the physical eye cannot see, but what has become clear to the mind’s eye.”
There are few songs mentioned in the Torah. Even the word shir is found quite infrequently. This month we celebrate Shabbat Shirah (and it’s Men’s Club Shabbat this year — for the first time!) because we read Shirat HaYam in the Torah (in Parashat Beshallach) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) in the Haftarah. Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea, is the first example recorded in the Torah of communal spontaneous prayers by the Jewish people. The Israelites have safely escaped the Egyptian army, and are free on the other side of the now chariot full Red Sea. And they look at Moses, and up to God, and declare their belief in God’s power, and in Moses’s ability to advocate on their behalf. And they were all so ecstatic that they began to sing. First Moses and the men, and then Miriam and the women.
Music has the power to move us, even without words. Sometimes we are most comfortable with the emotional rush of familiar music, and sometimes it is just as thrilling to learn a new tune, open ourselves up to the possibility of a new memory. As our community celebrates Shabbat Shirah, I hope we lift our voices in prayer with the exultant spirit of song.