My mom (Frida Levona bat Shalom) taught Talmud to women, made sculptures, painted, played accordion and became a partner/CPA at an accounting firm in Washington, D.C. She was incredible. I see her in my kids, and I’m thankful for that. I can’t not tear up just writing even this little bit about her. Since she passed away, I have started projects to try to share her light and inspire as many people as I can as a way to keep her soul elevated and her memory alive. Kaddish is a beautiful way to do this; saying the prayer out loud, as others join in with an ‘Amen’, is a moving ritual. And as I’m writing this, we are a few days away from Yom Kippur, which last year, marked the last day that I said Kaddish for my mom. In some ways, it was a relief. As her only son, having this sole responsibility weighed heavy, but, at the same time, it makes the ritual that much more meaningful, and so the connection, born of the ultimate need, is one that is very transformative.
Last week we covered that Torah is synonymous with Song as an introduction to this week’s Parashah, which is one long song titled Ha’azinu.
When I think of song, I think of my mom, because she was always so supportive of me pursuing music as a career and always came to the opening nights of the various events and music festivals that I would produce and perform. We connected on so many different things, but one of the most special was going to concerts together. Two in particular stand out – one was Buena Vista Social Club. And the other was seeing McCoy Tyner at the Blues Alley in D.C. I had him sign the cover of my all time favorite album, “A Love Supreme,” which he was such a big part of with John Coltrane. These memories remind me that what I had and have with my mom is A Love Supreme, indeed.
Song has always been the big connector. It doesn’t matter the language, the soul still feels the heart of the music and the body its rhythm. As we covered last week with Rebbe Nachman’s Azamra, the same way we must find the good points in each other and ourselves, so as to feel more aligned with each other and the universe, music is born of the act of sifting through the bad notes to get to the good notes, as beautiful melodies are the various combinations of the good notes. As Rabbi Aaron said, Hashem is the singer and we are the song. We have to work to be in concert with one another.
This brings to mind a verse by one of my favorite producers, Pharrell, “Did you ever realize the universe just means one song? Your soul knew it all along, you were dancing when you were born.” There is also a moment when he was in conversation with Rick Rubin when he said something incredible: “I’m blown away by chord progressions that make me feel something I’ve never felt before. Chords are coordinates, they send you to a place.”1
I think what Pharrell is referring to, beyond the new spaces that new melodies take each of us, is that these places are spaces within yourself and others where alignment is reached. Everyone has felt the unification that manifests from music, for some it’s dancing in a club, and the moment where it all hits, and you feel free and extremely connected with life and happy; for others it’s at a wedding where everyone is dancing together, happy for the couple and life’s moments, the music playing as the catalyst for the connection.
Last week the Torah instructed the Jewish people to write a Song, which Talmud Sanhedrin explains as a mitzvah (commandment) to write a Torah scroll in one’s lifetime.2 Reb Natan of Breslov explains that from this we learn that every person must strive to receive the Torah anew, on their own personal level.3 And goes on to explain that Hashem gave the Torah in the form of black fire [the letters] on white fire [the background]. We accepted the Torah on Mount Sinai saying, Na’aseh ve’nishma – ‘We will do and we will hear’.4 Rebbe Natan teaches that the level of na’aseh (‘we will do’) corresponds to the immanent intellect and is represented by the White Fire, which is something tangible. While the higher level of nishma (‘we will listen’) corresponds to the transcendental intellect, which is represented by the Black Fire, something beyond our grasp, something we can’t see. And we spiritualize reality, trying to ascend to the spiritual realm, by transforming nishma into na’aseh. One way we do this is by taking the words of Hashem from the Infinite and drawing them down in letter form as the written Torah.
Many of us have heard that we are one nation and also one Torah scroll, in which each individual is one letter. And so we are interdependent, equally important, and one. David Sacks, one of my favorite humans, a writer and producer of The Simpsons and a frequent presenter at my Don’t Block Your Blessings festival, explains that each letter, and each of us, is a musical note and that our task is to live in harmony by being in tune and tuning each other. He gives the analogy of someone sitting at a beautiful piano and playing the black and white keys and it not sounding right, wondering what’s wrong, and just then someone comes to tune the piano. Suddenly, it all sounds gorgeous. The piano is beautiful and what was being played had the potential of beauty, but it needed to be in tune, and that’s our mission– we need to uplift each other, judge each other favorably and show love to one another. As we learned in the past, the root word for ‘love’ (ahava) in Hebrew is ‘hav’ which means “to give” as loving is synonymous with giving. Ahava has the same gematria (numerical value)– 13– as the word Echad (the Hebrew word for ‘one’). And so to reach oneness and love, we have to be in tune with each other and ourselves, and when we share our oneness and our love, that is 13 + 13, which is 26. And as many of us know, 26 is the numerical value of Hashem’s four-letter name (the Tetragrammaton), the ultimate Divine Infinite Light.
In these days leading up to Yom Kippur, when everyone is supposed to ask each other for forgiveness, we are afforded the sacred space of reflection, a time in which we can rid ourselves of the weight that holds us back from being truly happy. Too often we hold onto disappointments and fears that will inevitably come up in various relationships, usually brought about by not fully communicating exactly how one feels or how one was hurt and how they can be unhurt, or not judging the other favorably or even putting themselves in the others’ shoes and only seeing things as a victim through one’s own perspective. These are the complicated aspects of life that feel beyond our control, that make us feel like there, as David Sacks would call it, is dissonance. The key to it, as Dr. David Hawkins teaches, (and as Deepak Choprah began as a mantra in a mediation that I attended), is letting go; to continuously let go and let flow; that is when you can feel in tune with yourself and jump back into the symphony of life in its full potential.
As think back to saying Kaddish for my mom, it always ends in the same way, just as the Shemoneh Esrei (the silent ’18 blessings’ prayer) ends, Oseh Shalom Bimromav (“He who makes peace in His high places”). This year I was thinking about those words more than ever, discovering how Shalom (peace) is where blessings exist. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared a powerful moment when someone asked Rabbi Shmuel Salant, a rabbi who spent a lot of time resolving family disputes, how he would make peace in conflicts between people. Rabbi Salant looked at the person and asked him, “What do you do when you say the words ‘Oseh Shalom’?” The person replied, “I take three steps back.” Rabbi Salant said, “That!” and went on, “is how peace is made. Each party has to take three steps backward.” To make peace we must compromise, we have to sacrifice some of what we want for the sake of what someone else wants. Without the ability to take steps back, the ability for peace is paused.
So let’s jump into this parashah, the Song of Ha’azinu, which is laid out beautifully in the Torah between two prose orations, which serve as an introduction and a conclusion to the seventy verses that make up the whole. In a modern sense it is a poem, but according to the Ramban, based on Talmud Rosh Hashanah, it is a shir (song), “because Israel always says it with singing and music. It is also written as a song (in the Torah), because a song has breaks indicating when one pauses in the melody.”5 The Levites in the Beit Hamikdash would sing this shirah to accompany the musaf service on Shabbat. They would have a six-week cycle of singing the shirah on Shabbat by dividing it into six parts and singing another part every Shabbat.6
In a prose sense, the introduction to the shirah of Haazinu is found in the second half of the chapter (31:16-30), broken into two sections. The first is Hashem’s words to Moshe in verses 16-21 and the second, verse 26 onwards, is Moshe addressing the Levites, handing them the book of the Torah he has just completed writing, including the addition of this Song of Haazinu, and commanding them to put the Torah alongside the ark, “that it may be there as a witness against you.”
The song ends with Moshe sharing the song and reiterating that it is through the heart that the words must resonate, so that each person is inspired to observe the mitzvot going from nishma to na’aseh. The verses read as follows:
32:44: And Moshe came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Yehoshua the son of Nun.
45: And when Moshe made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel,
46: he said to them: Set your heart to all the words wherewith I testify against you this day;
that you may charge your children therewith to observe to do all the words of this Torah.
The language and imagery in parts of this poem are a bit harsh at times, but so is life, and as Ramban has pointed out, all but the final redemption has come to pass. He sees the shirah as a prophecy. Other religions read the last section as if it had already taken place and that there was no future for the Jews, but Ramban, much like Rabbi Akiva, proved that the last events hadn’t transpired yet, because they refer to the final redemption. R’ Akiva laughed when he saw foxes come out of the Holy of Holies, because it showed that the prophecy of the destruction had been fulfilled and so certainly the prophecy of the redemption will be fulfilled just the same. It is just like this in our own lives: we rise up from our own adversities, our own destructions, and redeem ourselves from the experience to grow. As Muhammad Ali said, “There’s nothing wrong with getting knocked down, as long as you get right back up.” These Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Day of Repentance) are a time to realize so much of what is holding us back is in our own control. We are one of the luckiest and most privileged generations. We need to focus on all the blessings we do have and not focus on the ones we don’t. Our vessels can only receive more blessings when they are open and aligned with receiving. All of this is about loving and creating love for others, which always brings to mind what the Lubavitcher Rebbe said so beautifully, “You already belong. You are already holy. You are already loved. Now you too must love, and by loving, help others feel that they also belong.” As David Sacks so beautifully stated, we need to tune ourselves and tune each other, so that we may be in tune and not dissonant. The piano and player could both have all the potential in the world, but if the piano isn’t tuned, no one, including yourself, will connect to the tune.
May we go into the new year in tune with each other, in tune with the universe and, of course, in tune with ourselves.
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