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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Kol Nidre to Yigdal, from the Baal Shem Tov to Elie Wiesel, music unites and
integrates, because it speaks straight to the heart.
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
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.”
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
Kathleen Dean Moore describes the unparalleled
potential of that gift in her essay, “Another World Could Start Right
Here”. She writes:
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