Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor
Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket
September 17, 2021
Ed Paine, Ed Pease, Mike Scarpiello wrote a song in 1977, made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1982 “music speaks louder than words, it’s the only thing the whole world listens to, music speaks louder than words, when you sing people understand”
Same year, 1982, UAHC Biennial in Boston (major league snowstorm) Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler z’l gives a Biennial address on the importance of the arts in promulgating the faith – in one dramatic moment Alex begins to sing just the melody of Bloch’s Kol Nidre with his hand floating indicating the pitches of the tune. He did not need to sing one word – the melody itself brought every one of the 5,000 people present back to their most profound personal memories of Yom Kippur.
If you were with us for the High Holidays, you certainly heard tunes that were familiar, and many sang along beneath their masks. But you also heard melodies unique to these days. Some prayers with which you were familiar were sung with special melodies. There were other pieces of music and liturgy that we only sing during these special days. Nusach, the way we sing and intone liturgy, signals that we are in special, holy, time – and as you travel around the world, the nusach can also indicate where you are, as some styles of nusach are unique to locale.
Penultimate Torah portion in whole Torah Haazinu records Moses’ penultimate address to the Israelite people before he walks off to Har Navo to die.
Cantor Evan Kent in his Torah commentary published this week by the URJ notes that for 31 chapters in Deuteronomy Moses speaks to and exhorts the Israelites as to how to behave, what God wants of them, how to lead a life of blessing. But in this second to last teaching session, the texts says:
וידבר משה באזני כל קהל ישראל את דברי השירה הזאת עד תמם
“And Moses then sings the words of this sing to its very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel”
There are only two other songs in the entire Torah: the Song of the well (Israelites saved from an enemy ambush) and SHIRAT HAYAM, the Song of the Sea (Israelites escape Egyptians by crossing the Sea safely).
As a cantor, Even Kent writes in his commentary of the power of the singing voice (and if you were with us, you heard our Cantorial Soloist Elliot Z. Levine shake the rafters with his powerful baritone voice). Cantor Kent points out that the music has the ability to sear words into memory. He recalls poet Robert Louis Stevenson who articulates the eternal nature of song in the following poem, made even more famous in a setting by British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams:
Bright is the ring of words
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are caroled and said –
On wings they are carried –
After the singer is dead
And the maker is buried.
Low as the singer lies
In the field of heather,
Songs of his fashion bring
The swains together.
And when the west is red
With the sunset embers,
The lover lingers and sings
And the maid remembers.
Many of us remember driving in a car in the olden days with the radio on. A new hit song is played. The next day, we hear the new song again and we are humming along with it. By the third time we hear the tune, we are singing along – music has the power to open our minds.
But there was one aspect of song that Cantor Kent neglected to raise which is especially poignant when we think about this week’s Torah portion. From the very beginning of his leadership, we know that Moses is afflicted with a challenge – his speech is impeded – and many commentators surmise that Moses was a stutterer.
When I was in High School, I had a classmate that had such a powerful stutter that it was almost impossible to understand him. And even when he tried to repeat himself, many still did not get what he was saying. I was in Glee Club at the time, and standing next to me each time was my friend, who despite his stutter, sang with clarity, precision and beauty.
Moses spent his entire career speaking to the Children of Israel, and if their behavior was any indication, they might not have always understood what he was saying. But in this almost final speech, he turned it into song, the only way he could ensure the people would remember his words.
כִּ֛י שֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶקְרָ֑א
הָב֥וּ גֹ֖דֶל לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
For the name of the Eternal I proclaim;
Give glory to our God!
A story is told of the Ba’al Shem Tov and a poor, ignorant little shepherd boy. The boy happened to wander into the synagogue after hearing all of the praying and singing. Desperate to offer his praise and thanks to God and to pray like everyone else, the boy who knew no Hebrew could think of nothing to do but to sound notes on his flute. The worshippers began to complain that the boy was interrupting their prayers, but the Chassidic master said to them, “This boy’s song is worth more than all of our prayers combined because it comes from his heart. We are engaged in a routine, while he is truly speaking to God.”
In the old Gates of Prayer there is a reading, “If our prayer were music only, we could surely sing our way into the world we want, into the heaven we desire. Each would put his own words to the melody; from every song would pour a hundred different prayers….”
So, in this new year, let us sing our way into the world as it unfolds before us. Comforted by the songs and melodies of our past and challenged by new tunes, new songs, new ideas.