Cantor Gurney's Shabbat Message - September 17, 2021

  • Clergy
  • Shabbat

Were you aware that though we prayed for forgiveness in yesterday’s  N’ilah service our tradition actually teaches that those Gates remain open until the end of Sh’mini Atzeret, another 10 days? So, here’s another confession. I am obsessed with, even sometimes possessed by -- music.

I know I am in good company as the sages who wrote our sacred texts thousands of years ago, including the Torah, the writings of the Prophets, the Psalms (you get the picture) were obsessed as well, and more specifically,  had an obsession with “song.”  A “song”  is the inseparable coupling of melody and words.

My fixation with synagogue song is constant, but never more acute than during the High Holy Days, and the days leading up to them. The communal power of ritual song is IN its specific melodies which are prescribed for their specific time and place. We will not hear High Holy Day melodies for another year!  These rituals are a bond for our musical memories unlike any other occasion in Jewish life.

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is the final chapter of the Torah chanted in public. God commands Moses to deliver this final charge to the Israelites in a “song.” The Torah presents this “song” in columns:

The entire portion is written this way because it is a song.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, with regard to prayer and even the Torah itself,  “…the inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to GIVE ONESELF UP TO MUSIC, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach.” (Emphasis added.)

I still sometimes feel as if I’ve only begun to understand the power of music. Brilliant scientists and physicians relay dazzling truths about the healing and inspirational power of music, far beyond the Synagogue. Professor Daniel Levitan, a renowned scientist wrote, “I believe a particular kind of music - songs associated with religion, ritual, and belief - served a necessary function in creating early human social systems…MUSIC HELPED TO INFUSE RITUAL PRACTICES WITH MEANING, to make them more memorable, to share them with our family and friends…facilitating a social order. THIS YEARNING FOR MEANING LIES AT THE FOUNDATION OF WHAT MAKES US HUMAN.” (Emphasis added.) Dr. Levitan also says, “The music acts as a powerful retrieval cue for these memories precisely because it is associated with these and only these times and places.” I’ve visited with many who’ve lost the power of speech and memory and yet miraculously can not only remember the song lyrics, but we sang them together. 

No matter what the songs are that are deeply personal and magical to you, they probably stir and remind you of moments of deep emotion.  All of us feel joy, sorrow, anger, etc.

Emotions are so deeply personal, and yet they are also universal. None of us feel these emotions exactly the same way but we are all human beings. Shabbat, and especially this time of year, are times to feel connected to each other, and not only our Jewish community but our human community.


Shabbat shalom



Additional reading:

  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
  • This is Your Brain On Music. The Science of a Human Obsession  by Daniel J. Levitan
  • The World in Six Songs. How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitan