(December 19, 2011 / JNS)
Every Friday night, we welcome the Shabbat as a queen and try to feel enveloped in holiness. To that end, we recite this line from psalms: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” But, of course, because you sing this song every Friday night, it ceases to be new. It doesn’t take long for a new song to become an old song, and thus the mandate of the psalm is lost. We are no longer singing a new song to the Lord.
Let’s think then for a moment about the power of old songs. On the High Holidays and Passover, we become reacquainted with haunting or joyful melodies, some of which are over a thousand years old. Others are family tunes that we have stubborn affection for and can’t let go. Because we only hear these songs once or a few times a year, we always want the person leading the prayers to use a tune that we love.
After all, we’re only going to hear one performance of it. And I’ve always said that there’s no anger like the anger of someone who does not know your tunes. If you’ve ever been to a Passover Seder where they don’t sing your songs, you know exactly what I mean.
Should we sing a new song or an old song?
Naturally, we’re mandated to sing a new song so that we don’t fall into the trap of a melody that no longer excites us and fails to have the desired spiritual outcomes. But we need to sing it enough times to enjoy it. Think of a song that you first heard on the radio and fell in love with. You wanted to hear it again and again and drew joy from knowing the lyrics and joining along. Lucky for you, you’re not in my car—my personal music studio—because I can’t sing, but it doesn’t stop me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about singing and the upcoming presidential election, especially when it comes to views on Israel. I’m waiting for someone to sing a new song. Elections are so divisive. When people are defending Israel or their political party, they can use harsh language that incites disrespect. There is so much barking and biting. Words and accusations are thrown freely. People get hurt. Otherwise thoughtful people can turn into loud, judgmental companions who can hardly speak peaceably to people with whom they disagree. I dread this season.
Few things bring people together like music. It reaches such a transcendent place that it has the magic to take us far, far away from all that divides us. When we sing together, we are joined in sacred bonds of belonging. We feel so powerful, so necessary and so loved. Think of it as the difference between a heated synagogue board meeting and the congregation in the middle of a soulful kedusha, a high point of holiness in the service. With our eyes closed and our mouths wide open in song, we don’t see how different we are from each other. The words all blend into each other and hover upward.
My friend Menachem shared some important Hassidic teachings about music with me. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement once wrote that, “The tongue is the pen of the heart, but melody is the pen of the soul.” When we sing together, we become that pen of the soul. Shmuel Zalmanov, who compiled a book of Hasidic tunes, wrote that, “While the melody lasts, while the song is being sung, the singer rises, by degrees to new levels of inspiration, purity and adherence to the Torah.”
Perhaps we can sing a new song. Maybe if we sing together more, we could speak together in a way that transcends the incivility of our speech. The melody can stay in our minds and help us raise ourselves to new levels of inspiration and purity. Maybe as a community, we Jews need to sing more and talk less.
Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.