The Symphony of the Jewish year
Many years ago, I was running a Tishrei quiz for Tribe in one of our Jewish primary schools. I asked the question ‘What is the extra service that we add on Yom Kippur’, a hand eagerly shot up, ‘The overflow service’!
As a child growing up in Kingsbury United Synagogue in the late 70’s, I can certainly understand why that sticks in a child’s mind. I remember being taken to shul by my parents for the Yamim Noraim and being struck by the amount of people present – filling the shul AND the hall and loads more children in the children’s service.
It also seemed to me that this Judaism was a serious business and not much fun for a seven year old!
Thankfully I was lucky, my parents brought me back a few days later for Succot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah where I saw not as many people (no hall needed!) but I did see a joy and vibrancy that has lived with me ever since.
To see Judaism as a living, inviting and festive experience, allowed me to engage as a child with my community and forge connections with my faith that are still with me today. Later in life, I realised that the experiences of Tishrei were both different sides of the same Jewish coin.
Judaism is not just about self-reflection, repentance, regret and a need to change, but without them we cannot grow as a human being. Judaism is not just about celebration, singing, dancing and eating, but without them we cannot be in touch with a living Judaism which nourishes the mind and inspires the soul.
There is no better Parsha than Haazinu, which often falls at the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Succot – between teshuva and simcha, to explain this idea.
As Rabbi Sacks writes ‘With Ha’azinu we climb to one of the peaks of Jewish spirituality. For a month Moses had taught the people. He had told them their history and destiny, and the laws that would make theirs a unique society of people bound in covenant with one another and with God. He renewed the covenant and then handed the leadership on to his successor and disciple Joshua. His final act would be blessing the people, tribe by tribe. But before that, there was one more thing he had to do. He had to sum up his prophetic message in a way the people would always remember and be inspired by. He knew that the best way of doing so is by music. So the last thing Moses did before giving the people his deathbed blessing was to teach them a song.’
Why is music so powerful? Many of those who come this time of year would feel totally robbed if we did not sing those Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur melodies – that connects us to this time. Thankfully, those of us who attend all year round can see this with all the chagim and their tunes and melodies, from the exaltations of Hallel on the Yom Tovim to the mournful melody of Eicha on Tisha B Av – music touches the soul.
However, it goes further than that in relation to the two sides of Judasim that were mentioned earlier. As Rabbi Sacks continues.
In his book, Musicophilia, the late Oliver Sacks tells the poignant story of Clive Wearing, an eminent musicologist who was struck by a devastating brain infection. The result was acute amnesia. He was unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds. As his wife Deborah put it, “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment.”
Unable to thread experiences together, he was caught in an endless present that had no connection with anything that had gone before. One day his wife found him holding a chocolate in one hand and repeatedly covering and uncovering it with the other hand, saying each time, “Look, it’s new.” “It’s the same chocolate,” she said. “No,” he replied, “Look. It’s changed.” He had no past at all.
Two things broke through his isolation. One was his love for his wife. The other was music. He could still sing, play the organ and conduct a choir with all his old skill and verve. What was it about music, Sacks asked, that enabled him, while playing or conducting, to overcome his amnesia? He suggests that when we “remember” a melody, we may recall one note at a time, yet each note relates to the whole.
We ‘hear’ the whole melody – not just the individual notes.
It is the same ideally with Torah.
Torah is a symphony, which accompanies us through the year, through our lifetimes. There are high points and low points, times where the music is slow and pensive, other times where it is majestic and joyous – but it is all part of the same symphony and those who are attuned to the entire score can see and experience the wider picture.
It is such a tragedy for so many that cannot hear the symphony and see the broader nature of the Jewish experience. Living the ebb flow of the Jewish year with all the meaning and connection it brings.
I did not realise it at aged seven, but the month of Tishrei is the greatest example of what we need to live as positive, happy and moral people in the 21st century. It also made me appreciate the rhythm of the Jewish year with its cycles of celebration and mourning, historical remembrance and current realities.
It is a song that I learnt to sing then and have carried on singing ever since.
Let us just hope on Sunday night we are not singing in the rain!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach