The Spirituality of Song
Family Edition

Music spirituality POST
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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

In Ha’azinu we climb to one of the peaks of Jewish spirituality. Moshe had spent a month teaching the Jewish people. He had told them their history and destiny, and the laws that would make theirs a unique society of people bound in covenant with one another and with God. His final act would 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 way the people would always remember and be inspired by. He knew that the best way of doing so is through music. So the final thing Moshe did before giving the people his last blessing was to teach them a song.

moses standing on a mountain in the desert with music swirling around his head and crowd of people in biblical dress down below all in watercolor style3

Many biblical texts speak of the power of music to restore the soul. When King Shaul was depressed, David would often play for him and it would restore his spirits. David himself was known as the “sweet singer of Israel”. The prophet Elisha called for a harpist to play, so that the prophetic spirit could rest upon him. The Levi’im sang beautiful songs in the Beit HaMikdash. Every day, in Judaism, we preface our morning prayers with Pesukei deZimra, the ‘Verses of Song’, with their magnificent crescendo in which instruments and the human voice combine to sing God’s praises.

Every text and every time has, in Judaism, its own specific melody. So, when we pray, we do not read: we sing. When we engage with sacred texts, we do not recite: we chant. There are different tunes for shacharitmincha and ma’ariv, the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. There are different melodies and moods for the prayers for a weekday, Shabbat, the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot (which have much musically in common but also tunes distinctive to each), and for the Yamim Noraim, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish texts and times are not colour-coded but music-coded. The map of holy words is written in melodies and songs.

Music has extraordinary power to evoke emotion. The Kol Nidrei prayer with which Yom Kippur begins is not really a prayer at all. It is a dry legal formula for the annulment of vows. But its ancient, haunting melody has granted it a stronghold over the Jewish imagination. It is near impossible to hear those notes and not feel that you are in the presence of God on the Day of Judgment, standing in the company of Jews of all places and times as they plead with Heaven for forgiveness. It is the holy of holies of the Jewish soul.

Nor can you sit on Tisha b’Av reading Eichah, the book of Lamentations, with its own unique cantillation, and not feel the tears of Jews through the ages as they suffered for their faith and wept as they remembered what they had lost, the pain as fresh as it was the day the Temple was destroyed.

paper model of the city of jerusalem kotel wailing wall yerushalayim old city sculpture

Words without music are like a body without a soul. Music is a form of sensed continuity that can sometimes break through the most overpowering disconnections in our experience of time.

Many years ago, I once watched a teacher explaining to young children the difference between a physical possessions and spiritual ones. Together they built a paper model of Jerusalem. Then he played a song about Jerusalem on a cassette tape, and taught the song to the class. At the end of the session he did something very dramatic. He tore up the model and shredded the tape. He asked the children, “Do we still have the model?” They replied, No. “Do we still have the song?” They replied, Yes.

We lose physical possessions, but not spiritual ones. We lost the physical Moshe. But we still have the Song.

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  1. Why do you think music plays such an important role in Judaism?         
  2. Are there tunes and songs in our rituals and prayers that particularly speak to you?
  3. How can we ensure that we do not lose this Song?

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A Story for Shabbat

The Soul That Thirsts For God

by Dan Sacker

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva, where we find ourselves between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. No matter how engaged we are – or are not – in our Judaism throughout the year, there is something spiritual and powerful about the melodies of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days. They are the perfect of example of how, as Rabbi Sacks writes, “when language aspires to the transcendent, and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song.”    

For many years, Rabbi Sacks officiated at the midnight choral Selichot service in London. The packed shul would fall silent as he delivered a powerful pre-Selichot drasha (sermon), during which he would challenge, motivate, and encourage all those in attendance. Then, as the haunting and beautiful melodies of the Shabbaton Choir filled the shul, Rabbi Sacks completely immersed himself in prayer, eyes closed, fists clenched, singing along, rousing the congregation with an intensity, passion and kavanah (focus) that was unmatched. Just watching him daven was as inspiring as hearing the music itself.   

Before the service, Rabbi Sacks always spent time with the choristers, elevating and motivating them, reminding them how “music has an extraordinary power to evoke emotion.” Music inspired him in many ways, but he spoke most passionately about its power to enhance our tefillot. “God is the composer and librettist,” he writes, “[and] we are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of God’s song.” He truly believed this.   

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the one line from the book of Tehillim carved into the stone that marks Rabbi Sacks’ final resting place reads: Tzama lecha nafshi - “My soul thirsts for you.” His soul was one that thirsted for God – and reached out to Him, and inspired others to do likewise, not just through words, but in song. 

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Dan Sacker worked closely with Rabbi Sacks for ten years, was Co-Director of his private office, and was instrumental in establishing The Rabbi Sacks Legacy. He is now a Director at global advisory firm Milltown Partners.

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A Closer Look

Dan Sacker now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

Which idea in this week’s piece do you see as our main takeaway?

Rabbi Sacks found inspiration in music as a way of connecting to Hashem. But he would be the first to say that music is not the only way! For some it might be music and tefillah. For others, it might be Jewish culture, food, family, Israel, or something else. The challenge Rabbi Sacks sets us is to identify the elements of our Judaism or Jewish way of life that inspire us. Doing so will allow us to recognise that: “Faith is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.”

As we conclude this year’s cycle of Covenant & Conversation, we may be thinking, ‘What’s next?’ What is your challenge to us?

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Poignantly, Rabbi Sacks concludes this week’s piece by writing: “We lose physical possessions, but not spiritual ones. We lost the physical Moshe. But we still have the Song.” Rabbi Sacks’ physical loss, far too soon, impacted so many people from across the Jewish world and far beyond, then and now. However, what this terrific series with the various weekly contributors has shown is how significantly Rabbi Sacks’ song – his teachings, both Jewish or secular – continue to resonate and inspire. Those of us who were privileged to live in his midst now have a responsibility to share his teachings and wisdom with future generations.

His song is now ours. May we continue to sing it and teach it to others for generations to come.

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Torah Trivia

Question: Which word is a name in a song in the Torah, and also part of the title of a Shabbat song, and also part of the title of a Chanukah song?

Hint: The song is Ha’azinu.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week's answer

The word is “tzur” meaning “rock”. It is the name given to Hashem in parshat Ha’azinu (see Devarim 32:4). It is the first word of the song Tzur Mishelo, a zemer (song) often sung at the Shabbat meal on Friday night. And it is the second word in the song Maoz Tzur, sung when the Chanukah candles are lit.

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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