Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar
There sure is a lot a of singing at this time of year! Between the choral extravaganzas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read a song that Moses himself sung, Shirat Haazinu. Reading much like some of the prophets who come later, Haazinu depicts “Israel as a perfidious child” in Jeffrey Tigay’s words (JPS Commentary, 510), who disobeys God, is punished, but finally attains redemption.
Songs, of course, are not uncommon in the Bible. The Midrash on the account of crossing the Red Sea informs us that there are ten songs that “the Israelites sang to God.” (Tanhuma Beshallah 10) Though there are plenty more instances of singing in the narratives of the Tenakh, and many, many more songs when you consider even just the 150 chapters in the book of Psalms, the Midrash chose ten of particular significance, and Ha’azinu is amongst them.
Seven of the songs on this list are sung in celebration of a specific instance of God’s kindness to Israel, or to one of our heroes: leaving Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, water in the desert, the sun halting its course to help Joshua, Deborah and Barak’s defeat of Sisera, David’s protection from Saul, and the dedication of the Temple (Mizmor shir hanukkat ha-bayit le-David, aka the first announcement at Kehilat Hadar morning services).
Singing in celebration is quite a familiar concept to us — Hallel is traditionally regarded in this way, and also much of the singing that we have at Kehilat Hadar during this period is suitably joyful, as we celebrate God’s coronation and our chance to start over.
The other three songs on the list are rather different:
Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, is a love song. It can be understood as describing the love between two humans, or between God and Israel, but either way, there is as much angst and yearning as there is joy.
Ha’azinu, as I mentioned, is a prophecy, a warning, and a cautionary tale. In some ways, this is the most thematically on-point for the Jewish calendar. An account of sin, punishment, and ultimate redemption — mirroring themes, for example, in the Book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur afternoon. The question is, why is Ha’azinu, which seems to only resemble these other songs in a formal sense, considered to be such an exemplar of what it means to be a song that it merits inclusion on the Midrash’s list? Or to put it another way, what is it about the theme of sin and redemption that requires us to sing?
The final song on the Midrash’s list begins to point us towards a possible solution:
The tenth is for the future:
מִזְמוֹר שִׁירוּ לַה’ שִׁיר חָדָשׁ כִּי נִפְלָאוֹת עָשָׂה (תהלים צח, א).
A Psalm: Sing a new song to God, for God has worked wonders — Psalm 98.
In some ways this is much like the earlier celebratory songs, but it is not about a past event. Rather, as the Midrash told us, it is “for the future”, a redeemed future where the seas and mountains and rivers are all praising God. And it ends in a way that actually sounds a lot like Rosh Hashanah:
כִּ֥י בָא֮ לִשְׁפֹּ֪ט הָ֫אָ֥רֶץ יִשְׁפֹּֽט־תֵּבֵ֥ל בְּצֶ֑דֶק וְ֝עַמִּ֗ים בְּמֵישָׁרִֽים׃
For God comes to judge the world. God will judge the earth with righteousness, and the nations with equity.
But what does singing have to do with justice and redeeming the world? To answer that we should look, of course, to the neuropsychology of singing, and to the Song of Songs:
On the first count, Daniel J. Levitin, an academic whose interests include the intersection of music and cognitive science, discussed communal singing in a radio interview a couple of years ago. Singing as part of a group, he said,
really requires that you step outside yourself and see how you fit into a larger whole. You’re not just … executing your part. You’re trying to make it merge with the parts of others.
that activates a part of the frontal cortex that’s responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone.
As far as Song of Songs goes, one of the features that makes it an unusual biblical book is that it is a duet — both of the lovers speak — or sing — in the first person. It is as if to say that to be truly open to love, be it familial, platonic, romantic, or with the divine, you need to fully acknowledge the other party as their own subject, not just as an object in your first-person experience.
Now we see a glimpse of how the cautionary tale of Ha’azinu fits in: self-involvement can be seen as the root of sin. Injustice and cruelty are perhaps most frequently consequences of the notion that our needs and our desires outweigh those of others.
Conversely, what would it look like if we could really internalise that essential message of group singing? If we could really follow through on the realization that everything we do affects others whose claim on this life is equal to ours? If all the world–maybe even the hills and rivers–would sing together with us? Psalm 98 promises that that would herald a redeemed world, where justice and equity would reign.
As we sing together during these ten days, culminating in the day-long song-fest that is Yom Kippur, maybe we will be able latch onto the aspect of group singing that pulls us away from our focus on ourselves–and to make it a reality in how we live the rest of our lives. And then, truly valuing all other people, we can make some small steps towards creating a world of equity and justice.