Mo (mofic) wrote,

Music, Poetry, and the Spiritual Life of the Tone Deaf - a Dvar Torah

I gave the dvar (sermon) at my shul on Saturday morning and it covered the above topics :-).

Here's a reference for perhaps unfamiliar terms and names:

Shabbat Shalom - traditional Sabbath greeting, it means "a peaceful Sabbath."
Parsha - the section of the Torah read during a particular week
Dvar or Dvar Torah - literally "a word of Torah" it's a speech that teaches something about the Torah, generally about this weeks' parsha
kahal - congregation
Our rabbi is Carie and our shul's Dvar Coordinator is Brenda

Here is the dvar itself:

Shabbat Shalom. Today is known as Shabbat Shira and our parsha is Beshallach.

I’d never given a dvar torah until about a year ago. Inspired, perhaps, by an adult ed class Carie gave on “How to Give a Dvar” or maybe because of studying with members of this kahal along with those of a couple of other congregations in the Meah, I decided to give it a shot. I tried it, and I liked it. I found writing and delivering a dvar an interesting and fun task. Since then, when Brenda has mentioned that she needed someone for a dvar, I’ve volunteered a few times. So, when Brenda said a couple of weeks ago that she had openings in February, I said I’d take one of them. She offered me this date and I accepted it without even looking at what the parsha was, telling her I was confident that I’d find something interesting to research and struggle with and share in any part of Exodus. This is something I don’t feel as confident about with Leviticus, for example.

I was surprised, though, when I looked at my calendar and found that today’s parsha is Beshallach. I was surprised because the very first dvar I gave was on Beshallach, just one year ago on the Hebrew Calendar right here. I briefly considered just giving last year’s dvar again and seeing if anyone noticed but I decided not to because:

a) It would be cheating
b) I’d be devastated if no one did notice.

So I’m going to do something different this year. Last year I talked about Shirat Hayam – the song at the sea – and compared and contrasted two ways of looking it – the way of the ancient commentators and that of modern academic scholarship. I’m not going to do that this time, but I am going to talk about the Song at the Sea again.

It’s hard to talk about this week’s parsha and not to talk about it.

It’s in many ways the core of this week’s parsha, and fundamental to the Exodus story. As we read today, after being saved by the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and its subsequent rejoining and drowning of the army pursuing them, Moshe and Miriam and the Israelites sang a song of praise to G-d.

The Song at the Sea has a central place in our liturgy. It’s important enough that we break the triennial cycle for it. Generally in this congregation we read one third of the parsha each week for each year – we’re now in the second year of the triennial cycle so we read the middle portion of each parsha. As it turns out the Song at the Sea is in the middle of the parsha so it works out for this year but when it doesn’t we adjust what we read so as not to miss it. That’s something we only do for one other part of the Torah – the 10 Commandments. It’s important enough that we stand while it’s chanted. It’s important enough that some lines from it repeat throughout our daily, Shabbat and holiday prayers:

Mi chamocha b’elim adonay?
Mi chamocha Neded bachodesh
Norah tehilot oseah feleh

Sound familiar?

It’s important enough that this is one of few shabbatot that has its own special name – Shabbat Shira – Shabbat of the song.

So I’m considering the Song at the Sea again this year, but through a different lens from the ones I used last year. As our sages said of the Torah in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” So I’m going to turn it, oh about 60 degrees from last year, and talk about Shirat Hayam in a slightly different way. I want to talk about it as poetry, as song, and relate it to the role of poetry and song in human experience in general and in our liturgy and in our tradition in particular.

The word “shir” in Hebrew is translated as both “poem” and “song” - one word in Hebrew, two different ones in English. This happens a fair amount in translation because human languages develop independently and there isn’t some sort of mathematical one-to-one mapping between two languages. A word that means one thing in Language A can translate to two or more different meanings in Language B, or conversely there can be lots of ways to say something in language A and fewer in Language B.

And of course that can go both ways for any pair of languages. But just to digress for a moment – because digressions R us, or at least digressions R me – when the two languages are Hebrew and English, it’s *more* likely to go in one direction. There is more likely to be lots of words in English and a single word or fewer words in Hebrew to mean the same thing. For example, if we want to indicate size in English we might say something is big, large, huge, gigantic, enormous, humongous, ginormous, gargantuan, and so on. I'm sure we could generate 20 or more words for "large" without pausing to think. How do we say that something is big in Hebrew? Gadol. And bigger than just Gadol? Gadol M’od. Gadol M’od M’od. And so on. Okay, that’s a little simplified, because there are some other words, as I found out when I looked at a Hebrew dictionary, but in general there is a contrast between the two languages.

Hebrew is in some ways a much simpler language than English, certainly in vocabulary. The average desktop English dictionary has 200,000 words and so-called unabridged dictionaries have from 300,000-500,000 words. According to Charles Berlitz, an average competent English speaker knows 60,000 words while there are only 11,000 words – total – in modern Hebrew.

There’s an obvious reason for the difference. Languages gain words over time. They certainly lose some as well, as any modern reader of Chaucer or Shakespeare will notice, but over time they gain more words than they lose through daily living and through absorption of words from other languages when cultures meet. English has had a long time of being a language of daily living and English speakers have had a lot of contact with other cultures, so English has acquired a lot of words. Hebrew, on the other hand, was of course not a language of daily living for a long time. It was revived, as we all know, in large part due to the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. His children, born in the late 19th century, were the first people in roughly 2000 years to be native Hebrew speakers. Think about how strange that must have seemed to everyone around him! It would have been like raising your kids speaking Klingon today! Yet it started a trend and now a whole nation counts Hebrew as its native and official language.

So modern Hebrew has not had the time to acquire the large number of synonyms for all sorts of things that English has. But I digress – I told you I would.

So shir means both “poem” and “song.” There was likely no distinction between those two concepts in ancient times – both in our culture and others. The internal evidence of the Tanakh suggests that ancient worship was musical and accompanied by a variety of musical instruments in the temple. That has been further substantiated with archaeological evidence.

From Temple times until this day most of our service is sung. I never really thought much about that fact until a few years back when I was reading Heidi, one of my favorite childhood books, to my youngest daughter Zara. As those of you with small children or long memories will know, Heidi lives in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather and her best friend is Peter, the goatherd. A subplot concerns Heidi regularly visiting Peter’s home to read to his grandmother, because she is blind and Peter is illiterate. Heidi is shown reading from a book of hymns. Zara asked, “What’s a hymn?” and I said, “It’s a prayer that’s sung.” To which she replied, “Aren’t all prayers sung?” I hadn’t really thought about that before, but so much of our service is sung that in traditional Jewish liturgy there really is little distinction between “prayer” and “hymn.”

And of course we sing/chant torah as well, all of it. But there are only two places in the Torah where the text is identified –by the way it’s written, not just by the name - as Shir – song/poem - and Shirat Hayam is one of them. If you look at the text of the Song At the Sea, it’s immediately recognizable as poetry, even to those who can’t read Hebrew. It’s laid out in a distinctive way on the page. The Talmud tells us that the layout is one of “a brick over a half-brick and a half-brick over a brick” and a lot of commentators have talked about the brick wall of this poem, comparing it to the walls of the parting sea as well as using other metaphors and analogies.

Let’s look at it a little more closely as a poem. Why is it a poem? What makes a piece of writing poetry, rather than prose? [Note: at this point I paused to elicit responses.] Not all poetry rhymes and not all has an invariant structure, but its structure, its metre, its imagery are all different from everyday speech or other written forms. We may not be able to come up with an exhaustive definition of “poetry” but as Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, we know it when we see it. We see it in the physical layout of the Song at the Sea but not just the physical layout, also in the poetic structure and images. It can easily be divided into stanzas, and has certain images and themes that contribute to the impression of poetry. The anthropomorphic portrayal of G-d (Ish Milchama) and the glorification of war may sound a little alien to modern ears, but they certainly sound poetic. And it is identified as having been sung – with accompaniment, even, since Miriam picks up a timbrel and leads the song. So it was indeed shir – poem and song - and remains so today.

Both poetry and song likely arose in ancient cultures at least in part because – to a pre-literate society and later to one where books were scarce and the majority were not literate – memorizing text was the only way to pass on the words a culture wanted to retain. Both music and poetry do make words easier to remember.

Think of listening to the radio. Few of us can recite from memory material we’ve read or heard on the news, for example, at least not in a word-by-word way. But I bet everyone here can remember the lyrics from a lot of songs. Now some of that is because we hear the same songs over and over again, and although it often seems like the news is the same, the actual words do change. But some of it is the nature of memory and how music and poetry work with memory. Both the music in songs and the predictable pattern of poetry aid memory and it was an aid greatly needed and greatly profited from at a time when literacy was low or non-existent and books were individually produced in a laborious handmade process and therefore few in number.

But ease of memory is not the only reason for praying in music and in poetry. There is something about “shir” - about poetry/music - that touches a deep part of our consciousness, that we can relate to in ways we don’t relate to prose. We acknowledge that implicitly when we refer to particularly moving or evocative prose writing as “poetic” or when we refer to something that’s less than profoundly affecting as prosaic. The universality of poem and song in human cultures speaks to a universality of their effect on the human psyche. Music draws us in, touching an essential part of who we are and opening us up to meaning in a primal way. As our own Marc Schwartz said in one of the High Holiday talks on community some years back, “I came for the music but I stayed for the words.”

The pull of poetry and of music is universal and essentially human and it shows up in all religions at all times and places. And even in the sort of secular religion of governmental ceremony. At last month’s inaugural ceremony there was a poet (Elizabeth Alexander) and music – a wonderful quartet. Both of those enhanced the experience of the ceremony for many of us watching.

I’ve always been an appreciative listener – whether it be sung prayer or Broadway show tune or inaugural quartet - but producing music is something else entirely. I can’t carry a tune to save my life – something that anyone who has sat near me in shul or attended services on days I leyn can attest to. So I find the whole emphasis on music in our liturgy an ambiguous gift. I am as moved by music as the next guy, but my musical ineptitude for a long time left me too embarrassed to sing out loud in shul even though I wanted to participate.

I have always felt that one of the great and surprising joys of early parenthood was that small children have no idea that their parents can’t sing. You can’t imagine how wonderful it was for someone like me to be asked to sing a lullaby, repeatedly, by three different children! It was the one venue in my life where I felt comfortable singing.

But we are a participative shul and I wanted to become comfortable with participating in PSJC in a number of ways. Every time we have a bar or bat mitzvah here I am struck by Carie’s explanation to the guests of why we don’t applaud, that it’s because this isn’t a performance with actors and singers on stage and the congregation an audience. I’m struck by it because that is what the shul of my childhood was like. The rabbi and the cantor were indeed up on a stage and they performed – complete with costumes - and I felt very much like an audience member. But I so much prefer the traditional model we enact here (in our own, sometimes untraditional way) where we take turns leading parts of the service and leyning and giving divrei torah. And where we all sing. So I finally convinced myself that our liturgical music is both a gift we give to G-d and a gift G-d has given to all of us. We are a community and our tfilah is communal prayer and that means it’s for everyone, even the tone deaf.

Besides, there may come a time when I don’t get the parental dispensation on singing, particularly in public. I hear it happens even to those who can sing and sing very well. This point was brought home to me by an event that occurred a few years back on the main drag of a beach town on Long Island. A middle-aged man was walking along the sidewalk with his daughter, who appeared to be about 12 years old. The sun was shining, the day was beautiful, his arm was around the shoulders of his little girl and he just naturally started singing, full of joy and exuberance. At which point his daughter hissed, “Dad! Please don’t sing in public! It’s so embarrassing.” So Billy Joel stopped singing.

So apologies to those who sit on that side of the shul but I’m not shutting up – it’s part of the whole experience. I’ll try not to sing too loudly, though, out of respect for those with sensitive hearing.

Okay, so last year I talked about two approaches to biblical scholarship as applied to Shirat Hayam and this year I talked about it in terms of the import of shir – song and poetry. So if I get asked to do this one again next year I figure I’ll talk about Yam – the role of the Sea in our liturgy and in our peoplehood. And then it’s someone else’s turn. Shabbat Shalom.

Since I have your attention, I hope, I just want to remind you all that I’m hosting the Get Acquainted Lunch today. It’s billed as a pot luck but please do come even if you weren’t planning to and consequently don’t have any pot to luck. I have tons of food and welcome all, with or without potluck. I’ll leave Kiddush early to set out food and such, but come over whenever you’re done – address is in the weekly flier.

The dvar went over very well, and the Get Acquainted Lunch was a success, too. We had somewhere between 15 and 20 people in my tiny apartment and everyone seemed to have a good time. And my cholent came out great!

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