Cantor Shapiro's Shabbat Message - February 10, 2023

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Cantor Shapiro's Shabbat Message - February 10, 2023

My husband, now himself a music professor, tells a story about a professor that we both had in college. It was her first time teaching a Music Theory Class. On the first day of class, she played a chord on the piano, and asked the class, “What is that?”

A classmate answered, “That's a diminished seventh chord.”

She asked, “How do you know that?”

Having perfect pitch he answered, “The notes are F - Ab - B - and D.”

The professor responded, “Yes, also you can remember it because it is blue-green. What about this chord?”

Everyone in class looked at one another with question marks in their eyebrows, all thinking, “Blue-green??? What is she talking about?”

The professor continued, “What about this chord? - it’s chartreuse, so it has to be an E-flat suspended sixth.”

The students finally spoke up and asked, “What?”

The professor responded “What?” and in that moment she realized that no one else associated and experienced colors when hearing music. (It turns out that this experience is an incredibly rare neurological condition called chromesthesia - a form of a broader, but still rare disorder called synesthesia.)

In this week’s torah portion, Yitro, as our ancestors stood ready to receive torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, we read in Exodus 20:15, “All the people saw the sounds and the lightning, the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”

Saw the sounds? What is going on here? Did our ancestors experience group synesthesia? Were they all under the influence?

The Kli Yakar, who served as the Rabbi of Prague in the 1600s offered this: “We have to understand how they could have seen the sounds ... It sounds reasonable that each word that God spoke became palpable and tangible to the extent that it took on physical form and could be seen in the air as floating letters as if they were written in front of them.” The implication is that the experience of seeing sounds for our ancestors as they stood at Sinai was a spiritually knowing one. Their seeing sounds was actually them having access to a way of seeing the world that they didn’t normally have access to. Basically, our ancestors had entered an altered state of consciousness which allowed them not only to hear the sounds at Sinai, but to literally see them in front of their faces.

Many people seek mystical or mind-altering experiences. (An interesting fact about synesthesia is that it is rare as a neurological disorder, but it is commonly triggered by the use of hallucinogenic drugs.) When we find ourselves in a situation where we have access to seeing the world in a skewed way, we can be caught off guard and feel like we’ve lost our center of balance. It’s fascinating that the Aseret HaDibrot (ten commandments) – a centering tenet of our religious story – was delivered in a de-centering manner. It’s as if God was knocking us about, making it essential for us to find our literal bearings as we simultaneously encountered our spiritual and ethical bearings in the ten commandments. Our remembering of this experience then becomes all-encompassing and fully realized. I hope this week finds you experiencing harmony and balance in all areas of your life, but if you find yourself a little unsteady, imagine yourself standing next to our ancestors and pay attention. Perhaps in your righting of yourself and finding your balance, you may, like our ancestors, discover a new way of walking in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro