The Soundtrack of Judaism

September 24, 2018

With Parshat Haazinu we’ve climbed to one of the peaks of Jewish spirituality in Torah. For a month Moshe had taught the people. This is our book of Devarim, Deuteronomy. He told them of their history and destiny, and the laws that would make theirs a unique society of people, bound in covenant with one another, and with G‑d. He renewed the covenant and then handed the leadership on to his successor and disciple, Joshua. His final act, to be read next week, will be blessing the people, tribe by tribe. But before that, there was one more thing he had to do. He had to sum up his prophetic message in a memorable and inspirational way. So, the last thing Moshe did before giving the people his deathbed blessing was to teach them a song.

Elohaynu ve-elohay avotaynu, elohay Avraham, elohay Yitzak, elohay Yaakov,
elohay Sarah, elohay Rivkah, elohay Rachayl, v’elohay Leah...

 

Our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, and Father of Messiah Yeshua;

 

Moshe reminds us in song of your love and care for your people Israel; of your power and your truth. We take his words to heart and choose life.

 

We join with King David in praising you with song as the Rock of our salvation: our Shield, our Champion, our Fortress and Refuge. You are our Deliverer.

 

You are the G-d of hope, in whom we trust, and who can fill us with joy and shalom by the power of the Ruach. And we thank you.

 

We thank you for this Shabbat day, a foretaste of Olam Ha-Ba. May our prayers and praises rise and ascend before You as the notes of our songs, a pleasing chorus to Adonai.  We glorify You, together with the whole house of Israel, in and through the strength of Yeshua Ha-Mashiach, our heavenly Kohen Gadol.

 

Amen

There is something profoundly spiritual about music. When language aspires to the transcendent, and the soul longs to break free, it transforms into song. Song is poetry of the heart set to music, expressing the deepest parts of our souls.

Jewish history is not so much read as sung. In Midrash Tanchuma Beshalach, we have 10 songs identified by our sages in Tanakh. Most you’re familiar with like the Song of the Sea from Exodus, and the Songs of Moshe and David from today’s readings. Maybe less familiar are songs by Joshua, Deborah, and Hannah. And even less well known are the Song at the Well from Numbers 21 and another song alluded to in Isaiah 30. Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs by Solomon is described by Rabbi Akiva as our holy of holies of songs. And finally, our sages refer to a tenth song, a song that has not yet been sung; the song of the messiah. As Messianic Jews, we see this “Song of the Lamb” in Revelation 15 which like all those before it, praises G-d.

 

Many biblical texts speak of the power of music to restore the soul. When Saul was depressed, David would play for him and his spirit would be restored. David himself was known as the “sweet singer of Israel.” Elisha called for a harpist to play so that the prophetic spirit could rest upon him. The Levites sang in the Temple every day and likewise, we sing Hallel at Rosh Chodesh and the festivals and we start our morning prayers with Pesukei de-Zimra, the 'Verses of Song' where we sing G‑d’s praises.

 

Mystics go further and speak of the song of the universe, what Pythagoras called it the music of the spheres.” This is what is alluded to in Psalm 19 and by C.S. Lewis where he has Aslan sing Narnia into being and in turn, creation sings to its Creator.

So, when Jews pray, we do not read: we sing. When we engage with sacred texts, we do not recite: we chant. Every text and every time has its own melody. There are different tunes for shacharit, mincha and maariv. There are different melodies and moods for the prayers for weekday, Shabbat, the three pilgrimage festivals, and for the Days of Awe.

 

There are different tunes for different texts. There is one kind of trope (or cantillation) for Torah, another for the haftorah from the prophetic books, and yet another for Ketuvim, the Writings, especially for the five Megillot. I’ve read that there’s even a particular chant for studying Mishnah and Gemara. So, by music alone we can tell what kind of day it is and what kind of text is being used. Jewish texts and times are not color-coded but musically-coded. The map of our holy words is written in melodies and songs.

 

Music has extraordinary power to evoke emotion. The Kol Nidrei prayer we just sang at Erev Yom Kippur is not really a prayer at all. It is a dry legal formula for the annulment of vows, right? But it’s hard to hear those ancient, majestic yet haunting notes and not feel that you are in the presence of G‑d on the Day of Judgment, standing in the company of Jews of all places and times as they plead with heaven for forgiveness.

 

That is what music expresses and evokes. It is the language of emotion. That is what King David meant when he sang to G‑d the words: “You turned my grief into dance; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent.” One can feel the strength of the human spirit in song.

 

And this leads me to faith, which is very much like music. As music connects note to note, so faith connects episode to episode, life to life, and age to age in a timeless melody. G‑d is the composer and we are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of G‑d's song. Faith is the ability to hear G-d’s song and the desire to join with creation in singing back to the creator.

 

So why is Moshe singing on the last day of his life? Why was the longest piece of poetry in the Torah chanted on one of the seemingly saddest days of Jewish history, the day Moshe would pass on?

 

Perhaps He wanted to leave us with the power of song. He was leaving his flock, so he gave us a tool that would allow us to find G‑d within ourselves. He taught us how to maintain the flame of Judaism whether in the gas chambers or singing at the Shabbat table with family and friends.

 

On his last day of leadership, Moshe gave us the means to persevere. We lost the physical Moshe. But we still have the song.

 

And very soon, when Messiah returns, we will merit to hear the greatest song of all, when we will sing and dance with G‑d Himself in the most magnificent dance of all time...

 

May G-d’s song rise above the din of this broken world and may we, in and through the strength of Messiah Yeshua and empowered by the Ruach, join together with Creation in singing G-d’s praises.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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