The older I get, the more I follow the old rule of thumb for backpacking: Go light. Lay out only the things you think you’ll really need—then put away half. Thirty years ago, while trekking the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, I learned to lessen my load by cutting off the handle of my toothbrush and removing the tabs from my tea bags—because when you’re carrying all of your possessions on your back, for weeks on end, you realize, with every bone of your body, that every little bit counts. This is one of the reasons we go to the wilderness: to get back to basics, to pare away everything non-essential.
Imagine, then, our Israelite ancestors, leaving Egypt under duress, in the middle of the night. Setting out for who knows where, for God knows how long—what do they choose to take along, when limited to what they can carry? The bare essentials: unleavened dough, water bladders, goatskin tents, a few pieces of clothing. And, at least in the case of the women: musical instruments!
We know this because as they pass through the Sea of Reeds, just a few days after their departure, Miriam and the women dance, sing and celebrate to the beat of. . . tambourines! How extraordinary: we flee Egypt in such haste we don’t even have time to let our bread rise, yet the women have the strength and wherewithal to pack the percussion section! Thus Torah instructs us: music is not a luxury; it is, instead, a staple—as indispensable, for many of us, to the life of the spirit as food, water, and shelter are to the body. Today, many evolutionary neurobiologists argue that music preceded speech in human development and continues to play a central role in shaping who we are. Although I’m no scientist, I believe that music is as essential to our humanity as language—and that we Jews are not only a People of the Book but also a People of the Song.
Consider the convoluted history of Kol Nidre, the Hebrew/Aramaic prayer that opens—and gives its name to—this Yom Kippur evening service. No one can trace the origins of this quasi-legalistic formula for annulling vows—but we do know that, from its first appearance, in 8th century Babylonia, most of the leading Sages opposed its inclusion in our liturgy. In 879 CE, the editor of the very first siddur, Rav Amram Gaon, called it minhag shtus, a foolish custom. Since then, many venerated rabbinic authorities have argued against Kol Nidre, dismissing it as a misguided practice that makes light of pledges and promises.
And yet, despite centuries of vehement opposition from leading scholars, Kol Nidre endured—because the primal power of its melody trumped the rabbis’ reasoned resistance to its words. The music is the message. It opens with a fall, a descending minor tone, which continues for two full phrases—and then breaks way to a determined rise. It acknowledges our pain and heartbreak, then lifts us with a heroic—even defiant—endurance, crescendoing into a hard-earned triumph. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches, “the emotional experience of Kol Nidre overwhelms any individual attempt to understand what is being said.”
What is the nature of the melody’s uncanny power? How did music inspire our foremothers to pack the percussion on their wilderness journey—and enable Kol Nidre to survive centuries of rabbinic effort to edit it away?
For starters, music is omnipresent. While spoken language is limited to human beings, and perhaps a few of the higher mammals like chimps, whales and dolphins, music fills the natural world. Creation’s song is an endless chorus of chirping insects, singing birds, rustling leaves, raging rivers, and so much more. The great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would pray: “Master of the Universe, may it be my custom to go outdoors each day, where every tree and blade of grass chants to its Creator.” And the Psalmist proclaimed in wonder: “The heavens sing of God’s glory.” While we humans fumble to give language to the world, the world offers up its gorgeous song with utmost and unceasing grace. So it has been, says Torah, since God chanted everything into existence, commencing with “Va-yomer Elohim y’hi or, va-y’hi or—And God said, ‘Let there be light’—and there was light.” From the beginning, forever and always, it’s wind and water, the rushing spirit of the Divine, singing us into being, humming through the vastness of the universe into our waiting heads and hearts.
Given music’s ubiquity, we should not be surprised at its special capacity to bring us together.
Language often divides us, as Torah teaches with the Tower of Babel. In a world awash with dialects and tongues, most of humanity cannot converse with one another. And even for those lucky enough to share a common language, words may create barriers as much as bridges. Speech descends into the realm of judgment, unconstructive criticism, and rigid dogma. We lapse into dichotomies of right and wrong, self and other, us and them. Doctrinal debates splinter religious communities, and politics sunder families—and nations. Even the Jewish people, with our proud Talmudic history of respectful argument are not immune to such discord. Listen to the acrimonious dispute over the state of Israel currently raging in our Jewish press, institutions, and households—the language isn’t pretty. Rancorous discourse and petty accusations make it ever harder for us to talk—and pray—together. For us, and for all humanity, words too often harden into walls that set us apart.
Music can help us overcome such obstacles. It transcends the failings of language; people who cannot speak to one another can sing and play and dance in beautiful harmony. As the great 20th century folk troubadour Pete Seeger noted, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.” Seeger spoke from deep experience. He and his band, the Weavers, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. In 1957, he was indicted for contempt of Congress, and his music was banned from mainstream TV and radio for nearly a decade. But this did not silence his song. Pete Seeger continued to sing out for peace, justice, and environmental responsibility well into the next millennium. When he died in 2014, at the age of 94, President Obama memorialized him, lauding his steadfast belief in the music’s power to promote community and social change. Speaking for so many of us, Obama concluded: “He always invited us to sing along.”
Daniel ben Yehuda Dayyan also invited us to sing along, over six hundred years ago. He wrote the hymn that concludes this evening’s service. Like Kol Nidre, which opens it, Daniel ben Yehuda’s work illustrates music’s ability to take us where words cannot.
For centuries, the Rabbis tried to persuade the Jewish people to subscribe to a standard creed. They imagined a universal profession of faith might unify us. Their best candidate for that challenging task was Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived—yet time after time, our Sages’ best efforts to canonize his words failed miserably. The Jews in the pews simply refused to recite these principles; then, as now, we were just too strong-willed and opinionated to accept any fixed creed—even one penned by our most revered teacher. Then, in 1404, the poet Daniel ben Yehudah had the brilliant idea to recast the Rambam’s principles in rhymed metric verse. Soon thereafter, composers set it to music as Yigdal. That hymn quickly secured the beloved place in the siddur that it had repeatedly failed to gain as prose. The lesson is clear, and true to this day: if you want people to profess words, even if they don’t necessarily believe them, arrange them to a catchy tune. As both Daniel ben Yehuda and Pete Seeger taught: Creeds divide us, music invites us to sing along.
But music doesn’t just connect us with one another; it also helps integrate different aspects of ourselves. Dr. Daniel Levitan is a former rock musician and producer with a PhD in neuroscience; he shares his research in his terrific book, This is Your Brain on Music. Working with functional MRI technology, he and his colleagues have demonstrated that while sight, smell, speech and other human sensory operations occur in specific areas of our brains, musical activities light up everything from the cerebral cortex to the amygdala. Scientifically speaking, music defies compartmentalization. Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore summarizes these findings:
The aquamarine light of music floods through the brain, pooling in all the places where we feel, understand, remember, prefer, perceive, analyze, hope, and fear. The part of the brain that reads music helps us read pain in a person’s face. The place for perfect pitch is the same area the brain uses to understand language. We remember a melody in the place we remember our children’s names. The splashing edges of this great blue sea of music are the places where understanding can grow.
Many of us love music precisely because of its unique capacity to cross, confuse, and ultimately confound boundaries. I believe this is a large part of its eternal appeal for all kinds of religious communities. For just as music blurs the regional borders that so often define our brains, so, too, does it transcend the artificial barriers we draw between sacred and secular. That’s why you can be deeply religious and still love secular show tunes, or avidly atheistic yet thrill to the passionate energy of a gospel choir. Consider: when Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for “Our Love is Here to Stay” just one month after the death of its composer, his beloved brother George—what kind of love, exactly, did he have in mind? Is the song a pledge offered by a romantic young man to his lover? Does it represent Ira’s loving lament for George? Or is it something else entirely? The chorus declares: “In time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.” Recently, a colleague reminded me that these words are remarkably similar to a passage from the book of Isaiah: “For the mountains may move, and the hills be shaken, but My love shall never depart from you.” Was Ira Gershwin nodding to Scripture? Did he unconsciously compose a sacred song? Or is “Our Love is Here to Stay” all of the above, and more: romantic and fraternal, mournful and joyous, human and divine, all at the same time?
Music’s miraculous, mysterious ability to transcend boundaries—to integrate us—infuses it with transformative holiness. It can rescue us, body and soul. During one of the darkest periods of my life, I found solace playing my harmonica at a Sunday night blues jam. I took comfort in the Psalms, that holy poetry perhaps composed upon King David’s harp—and in the wisdom of my teacher and therapist, Bruce Springsteen. When I was at my lowest, I would crank up The Boss singing “Lonesome Day”, with its elegiac verses echoing my own sadness, then overcome in the end by the irresistibly triumphant chorus: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.” That music saved me from despair.
And I am not alone. For some of us, salvation comes through John Coltrane’s haunting wails of “A Love Supreme.” For others, it arrives via Bach or Beethoven. The vessel can be the muezzin’s call, a Buddhist chant or Hindu raga, Ave Maria or “Amazing Grace.” It is the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, and Luciano Pavarotti, the gospel chorus and the Motown band, rock and rap and R&B, Don Giovanni and “Tangled Up in Blue.” It is sacred or secular—no, it is sacred and secular—and it is a priceless gift to us all.
The founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov, knew this. He taught that music shatters the barricades of heaven. He composed devekus niggunim, songs that transcend syllables and sound, and he shared them with his disciples, to help them lift their prayers into communion with the Holy One. Nearly fifteen years ago, I experienced a taste of those songs and their transformative power, thanks to the writer, witness and teacher, Elie Wiesel, z”l, who died this past summer. Mr. Wiesel grew up in the cradle of Hasidism, in a small town nestled in Romania’s Carpathian mountains. His mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a prominent Vizhnitzer Hasid, sage, and storyteller.
In his book, A Jew Today, Elie Wiesel paints an extraordinary portrait of his grandfather. He describes the day, as a young boy, when he missed his zayde so much that he walked the seven kilometer journey to his farm, without his parents’ knowledge or permission, just to visit him. Reb Dodye sent back a message with the next coachman to reassure the worried parents, then regaled Elie with tales of his great-grandfather, who took up the violin at the age of 70, and entertained his family with klezmer and gypsy tunes. And then they sang, Dodye Feig and Elie Wiesel, grandfather and grandson, together.
Fast forward almost seventy years. Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel comes to Boise to speak to a packed house at the Morrison Center shortly after 9/11. His talk was exactly what one would expect. He said what needed to be said, eloquently—as he had undoubtedly done on countless other occasions around the globe. I don’t recall any of the specifics because the words, while instructive, simply weren’t that memorable.
But during his short stay in our city, despite his jam-packed schedule, Mr. Wiesel somehow found the time to visit us here at CABI, to share an intimate half hour with the Jewish community. Quite unlike the highly-polished speech he gave at Boise State, this talk was totally informal— just a wise old Jewish man lovingly shmoozing with his extended Jewish family.
Then time ran short and he prepared to head out for his next event. But first he paused and asked us: “May I conclude with a niggun, a melody from my youth?” He took a deep breath, then shared a brief, beautiful story about a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a boy. Then he sang, so softly at first, barely above a whisper. Who knew?—Elie Wiesel had the sweetest, most poignant singing voice! You could hear the angels humming with him, and when he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the shul. It was one of the most moving Jewish moments of my life, and I remain forever thankful for it.
From Kol Nidre to Yigdal, from the Baal Shem Tov to Elie Wiesel, music unites and integrates, because it speaks straight to the heart.
We know this here at CABI. It’s why we applied for—and received—a prestigious grant from the Covenant Foundation to hire Nemmie Stieha as our music educator. We’ve used Covenant money to bring in some of today’s most outstanding young Jewish musicians. Michelle Citron headlined at the Basque Center, and Nefesh Mountain joined us for last spring’s congregational retreat in McCall. Josh Niehaus and Chava Mirel played at Feast of Torah and anchored our Idaho Jewish Festival. And thanks to Nemmie’s leadership, this spring we will host a Purim visit from Pizmon, the fabulous co-ed, a cappella group from Columbia University, Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, week in and week out, we will do all we can to better infuse our Shabbat and holy day services—and other gatherings for study, socializing, and social justice—with vibrant Jewish music. Because I believe that our spiritual growth and inspiration depend less on how much Hebrew—or which siddur—we use—and more on how enthusiastically and often we sing together.
I want to encourage all of us here tonight—and those who are not here, too—to join with me and Nemmie and Elana Salzman and Oliver Thompson and Brad Wolf and the Moody Jews and all the rest of our CABI music lovers and music makers in the holy work of transforming and renewing our congregation with the amazing power of song.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African-American demonstrators risked their lives in the deep south, facing down brutal white supremacists with remarkable courage. When asked about the source of such bravery, Bernice Johnson Reagon, daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, points to the music. She maintains that by singing hymns from the black church, the protestors conjured up an extraordinary collective strength. The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear. As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of. The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different. You become part of a community. And then they can’t get to you.”
On Rosh Hashanah eve, I challenged us to go forth, into the wilderness together, to embrace a Jewish future articulated by diverse new voices that may strike us as strange and unfamiliar. I acknowledged that this call is challenging—that it will take great faith to work through our fear, to embrace the unknown, and hold fast to our vision of a revitalized Jewish future.
Tonight I reassure you that we can, indeed, muster that faith and courage—that we can find it, in no small part, through the gift of music.
Kathleen Dean Moore describes the unparalleled potential of that gift in her essay, “Another World Could Start Right Here”. She writes:
A physicist will tell you what you already know. That harmony has the power to shake the world. Sing one clear note, and the same tone will hum in the window glass, in the electric wires, in the neighbor’s piano, in the pine needles—and the air will be changed forever.
Let us go, then, into that wilderness, singing, as Miriam and the women sang at the Sea of Reeds. Why did they pack their tambourines? Because, in their wisdom, our mothers knew the journey ahead would demand the kind of bravery best-mustered through the power of song.
Imagine the scene on the shore of that distant sea: As the Egyptian army bore down upon them, our ancestors must have been seized by doubt and fear—until Miriam took up her timbrel, to dance and sing. Then the rest of the women joined her, fortified by the courage of her song, and the music rose in a mighty crescendo, parting the waters and paving freedom’s way—even as it does, still, today.
And so, on this Yom Kippur eve, this sacred day of atonement—at-one-ment—let us, too, sing together:
Ozi v’zimrat Yah, va-y’hi li l’yeshua—
God, my strength, and my song, shall be my liberation.