The Rashbam says the entire book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is called שירה, “Song, Poem.” This Parashah instructs us to “write this song for yourselves”. This song is the Torah, and we learn from here that it is a mitzvah to write a Torah scroll.1 We see this week that Torah is synonymous with Song.
As I reflect on my life, I realize that song has always led me. Throughout my childhood, it always had a transformative power. Some of my earliest memories are listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller album on vinyl when I lived in Naples, Italy. I would dance to it in a way that I felt as if I was reaching another dimension, physically and emotionally. I also remember my mom would always play songs from the diwan (Yemenite book of songs and prayers), and one that stuck out was “Iym Ninalu” by Ofra Chaza. She looked just like my mom when my mom had her traditional henna ceremony, so I felt especially close to the music and all that surrounded it.
Fast forward to high school, freshman year I went to the Hebrew Academy and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, but for the next three years, I went to a secular school, and as all my friends were in Jewish schools late into the early eve, I had all this extra time on my hands. So I converted my basement into a music studio and bought a drum set, a turntable, a keyboard, a mic, two guitars and possibly the most key component, a 4-track recorder, so I would lay down each part one by one, creating songs with me on each instrument. I hope that these recordings don’t surface, though I did make mixtapes and included them on CDs for friends 😉 All this time afforded me a chance to dig into my own voice both musically and lyrically, as I pushed the boundaries of writing and baring my soul.
Music has been such an important healing tool for me over the years. Feeling good comes in waves, so if you hit a funk, it’s important to have ways to get yourself out. For some it’s being in nature, seeing the grand grace and epic beauty of creation, for others it’s exercising, and for others it’s staying connected to loved ones. For me, staying happy and connected is certainly tied to maintaining a daily spiritual practice, but also an important and key part is music. Music transcends current moods and creates universes to jump into; it’s a powerful way to shift perspective and feelings. Bon Iver‘s self-titled album does it for me everytime– if I ever feel down and I listen to it, I feel that darkness can’t coexist with the light and beauty that those songs exude, and it snaps me out of it. Of course, on an even more connected level are the songs from Jewish singers that blend our rich tradition into their own styles (Ishay Ribo, Eviatar Banai, Akiva, Erez Yechial etc.)
The reason I’m waxing on about music is because in this very short Parashah of Vayelech, two verses jumped out at me, and they read as such:
Now, write this song for yourselves and teach it to the Jewish people. Place it in their mouths, so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Jewish people. (וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שִׂימָ֣הּ בְּפִיהֶ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּ֜י הַשִּׁירָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את לְעֵ֖ד בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל.)2
When they encounter many troubles and suffering, this song will speak up for them as a witness, since it will not be forgotten from the mouths of their descendants. For I know their inclinations, what they do today, even before I bring them to the land that I have promised. (וְ֠הָיָ֠ה כִּֽי־תִמְצֶ֨אןָ אֹת֜וֹ רָע֣וֹת רַבּוֹת֮ וְצָרוֹת֒ וְ֠עָנְתָ֠ה הַשִּׁירָ֨ה הַזֹּ֤את לְפָנָיו֙ לְעֵ֔ד כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִשָּׁכַ֖ח מִפִּ֣י זַרְע֑וֹ כִּ֧י יָדַ֣עְתִּי אֶת־יִצְר֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֤וּא עֹשֶׂה֙ הַיּ֔וֹם בְּטֶ֣רֶם אֲבִיאֶ֔נּוּ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּֽעְתִּי.)3
Ramban (Nachmanides) teaches that the plain meaning of “and now write down for yourselves this song” is that Hashem commanded this to Moshe, while Yehoshua heard Hashem’s instructions and read what Moshe wrote down. This is what’s meant when, two verses later, Moshe is reported as writing all this down and teaching the people the contents of the ”song.” Yehoshua joined in teaching the people, as we know from the “song” that is referred to in the first section of Parshat Haazinu. The reason that this portion is called שירה, song, or poem, is that since time immemorial the Jewish people recite it as such. And the meaning of the expression “this Song” is “the Song that I will now tell you,” referring to Ha’azinu (‘Give ear’), which is our upcoming parashah. It’s called Song because Israel would recite it with song and psalm.
Song is at the center of all our rituals, and singing is the unifying element of communal prayer. King David used a harp to compose the Psalms (Tehillim). The Talmud teaches that the harp hung above King David’s bed, and at midnight a northern ruach (wind) would blow on the five strings, raising him from his sleep to study Torah until day break.4 The Zohar teaches that the five strings parallel the five books of Torah and are the instruments with which he composed much of Tehillim.5 The Zohar continues explaining that the northern ruach alludes to the ruach of Hashem that hovered over the water’s surface at the moment of Creation, and that this ruach TZeFoNit (northern) corresponds to the ruach haTZaFun (hidden spirit).6 Chazal (our Sages) teach in the Talmud that Tzafon is lacking7 and that the lack is in the heart, as it says in Tehillim, “He will give you that which your heart lacks” and “Hashem will fulfill all your requests”.8 As the Zohar teaches, the essence of the ruach of life emanates from the heart, and all the body’s organs are directed by the heart. The heart is likened to a king, while the arteries are like soldiers. So the lack is that of a feeling of a departure of ruach from the heart, and that is why it says in Tehillim, “He will give you that which your heart lacks.” That is the explanation of the verse in Tehillim of the Jews who receive the ruach of life from the Torah and why they are called tzafun, as it says, “They plot against Your people, and take counsel against tzfunkha (Your hidden ones).9
When you listen to music, you can feel some of what the artist is feeling when he sings. In the Talmud10 it teaches, “Words that emanate from the heart – enter the heart.” Kabbalists explain that music helps banish extraneous thoughts and clear the mind, cutting away impure thoughts that envelop the soul, allowing a person to connect to the Light of the Infinite. Music is also something that can be played in circles infinitely, in fact that is often how the prophets would reach their state of nevuah. It would be a repetitive riff being played until the riff would act as a mantra, a meditation, and prophecy would be reached.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov expands on ruach and rhythm in possibly his most famous and fundamental teaching from Likutey Moharan, Reish Pei Bet (282), also known as “Azamra“ (‘I will sing’). Rabbeinu teaches that judging everyone and yourself favorably, always looking for the good points, is essentially the secret to blessings and happiness. He explains that this is how melodies are made. And we see this through playing a musical instrument, which gathers the good ruach from the ruach of gloom/depression. In essence, music is made through the separation of good from evil, by selecting and gathering the good points from the bad; that is how melodies and songs are created. And so, when a person doesn’t let themselves fall, but revives himself by searching and seeking out the good points in himself and gathers and separates those good points from evil and impurity within oneself, this is how melodies of oneself are made and so the person is able to pray and sing and give praise to Hashem in a teshuva (a return) and a repentance, which brings life, happiness and ultimate unification.11
The Biur HaLikutim (#5) adds that what brings repentance is this sifting the good ruach from the bad and that without the ruach of depression that results from a sin, it wouldn’t be possible to create music, meaning the good alone is not enough. The melodies are sifting the good tones (good points) from the bad tones (bad points) and without that, one cannot build up music that the spirit of prophecy and joy manifest. With that said, by negating the ruach of depression and evil which is created through sin, a person merits transforming evil deeds into good deeds. And this is how one goes from the scale of guilt to merit and by virtue of this music, melody, spirit of joy and happiness that is created, a person is able to repent and be received in repentance.
Music has the ability to return us to our own happiness and return us to a revealed connection with Hashem. One artist in particular that I always think of as super tapped into biblical wisdom is Bob Marley and not just because of his album names. (e.g. Exodus) I think of him mainly because of one of his most famous songs, one that doesn’t carry the regular rhythmic percussion of reggae, but an acoustic track dubbed, “Redemption Song,” which he made the last song on his last album with The Wailers (Uprising). I’m always struck by the wisdom in the lyrics and that he knew the end was coming, as he was struggling with cancer. He wrote about tremendous hardships being overcome by Divine Providence, in a way, letting us know that through his faith, he and we will be alright. As the song strums along, he borrows a phrase from a speech by Marcus Garvey, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our mind.” This is a recurring theme throughout the last bunch of parshiot and indeed much of Torah and our own exodus. It is the lesson of Yosef and the pit and our time in Egypt and our emancipation by the hands of Hashem, and it is what we must always battle within ourselves, freeing ourselves from whatever bondages the yezter hara continuously tries to place on us. The chorus is a simple plea, but a profound one; it asks for unification with each other, with ourselves and with our Creator by joining in and “singing these songs of freedom”.
I spent the last few days in the woods of Running Springs, CA for Rosh Hashana with my kids and the Ostrova Biala Rebbe. It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to sing and pray surrounded by people you love as the Rebbe sings the songs of redemption that usher us into the new year. There is always a moment that is above all the surrounding moments when all feels aligned and it all sort of makes sense. This moment for me came earlier today when we sang Avinu Malkeinu/Our Father, Our King, hearing the Rebbe lead, as we all joined in with an ineffable feeling; I just felt connected and exalted.
There’s a story from the Talmud Ta’anit: once, during a drought, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva prayed for rain. First R’ Eliezer stood before the ark and recited twenty-four blessings for fast days, but his prayers went unanswered. And so R’ Akiva rushed to the bimah and cried out “Avinu Malkeinu, ayn lanu Melech eileh Atah,” (“Our Father, our King, we have no king but You”); “Avinu Malkeinu, l’ma’ancha rachem aleinu” (“Our Father, our King, for Your own sake, have mercy upon us,”). And immediately, the rain fell, ending the devastating drought. The Sages of the time suspected that it must be because Rabbi Akiva is greater than Rabbi Eliezer, but a Heavenly Voice was heard proclaiming, “The prayer of this man, Rabbi Akiva, was answered not because he is greater than the other man, but because he is always forbearing and the other is not.12 The lesson here isn’t that a prayer is answered based on the greatness of the person, but on patience and the heartfelt nature of its offering. Rabbi Akiva pleaded with Hashem, reminding Him that He is our Father and our King, but in pleading with Hashem as our Father first, R’ Akiva was asking that Hashem lead with the love of a parent before that of a king, and that is how we are to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening.
In that moment, singing the song, “Avinu Malkeinu,” in the woods, with the Rebbe leading it, I felt truth and oneness, and I could hear through the singing that was in sync with mine that everyone around me felt the same.
Now that we are in the Ten Days of Repentance, I’ll end this dvar with the בספר חיים prayer which goes like this:
In the book of life, blessing, peace and prosperity,
May we and all Your people, the house of Israel
be remembered and written before You
for a good life, and for peace.
Here’s to a good life filled with peace and blessings!
Shana Tova Umetukah!✨