Negative sensationalism in all forms of media has been increasing for a long time. There seems to be a tendency to emotionalize and emphasize the baser elements in news whether the stories are of a political, personal, criminal or economic nature.
Reporting controversies, scandals, name-calling and divisiveness seem to take precedent over less salacious events and this can have an unwanted effect on our moods. I call this phenomenon “noise,” and noise can be defined as “unwanted sound judged to be unpleasant, loud or disruptive.”
Because this noise seems to surround us on a daily basis I am especially grateful that we are nearing the Jewish High Holy Day season, the Yamim Noraim. I believe that a counter to this disruptive noise is the music and prayer which are the central elements of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Music has an almost magical power to evoke feelings which intensely move people. The history of the Jewish people is written in song. Our music, including liturgical music, like the Temple offerings of old is a mixture of different ingredients. These elements include but are not limited to:
• Sephardic hymns
• Biblical cantillation
• Oriental maqams
• Cantorial recitatives
• Chassidic nigunim
• Classically arranged choral compositions
• Western European waltzes and operetta melodies
• German call and response hymns
• Italian opera
• Yiddish theater music
• American-inspired, recently composed song
• Jazz and rock influences
• Old and new music from modern Israel
• Blues and even rap
The list could go on because Jewish liturgical music has always interacted in the diaspora with its host culture. Many learned musicologists theorize that there are musical elements present in our liturgical music that can be traced back to ancient Israel and Temple times and that these elements have influenced early Christian chants. For over two millennia our classic texts, scripture, prayer, psalm and poetry were sung and almost never read during religious services. Even the study of Talmud followed a sing-song chant.
We sang with Moses upon crossing the Sea of Reeds, with Miriam as she led the women in song and dance, with Deborah when Israel was victorious over the Canaanites. David the sweet singer of Israel would sing to calm the troubled soul of King Saul. The choir and orchestra of the Levites in the days of our ancient Temples would offer glory to G-d. It is during the High Holy Days when the largest number of Jews attend synagogue. It is on these days that an inner connection between music and spirit is most keenly felt. Whichever synagogue one attends there is melody and song. Whether it is the sophisticated music of cantor and choir, or the melodies led by a baal teffila (master of prayer), or a lay leader, there is music. Music brings us together whether we are listening, singing along, feeling a rhythm or only a vibration around us.
We are not attending a concert; the experience is quite different. The melodies of the High Holy Days should help us to engage in self-evaluation, meditation, humility and a sense of contrition. Song in the synagogue is prayer to G-d. Song and melody can be so powerful that it can even overshadow text. The classic example of this is the Kol Nidrei prayer which is not really a prayer at all but a legal formula for the annulment of vows. In the Ashkenazic synagogue the warm and haunting melody far removes worshipers from the text and projects us to be standing in the presence of G-d on the Day of Judgment.
The shattering sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah may or may not be considered music, but it is not simply noise by any means. It is a reminder of why we are at prayer and before whom we stand. Lishmoah el harinah v’el hatifillah literally means “to harken unto the song and unto the prayer,” and is recited on the first night of selichot just prior to Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is credited with the saying “How do we pray to the Lord? Is it possible to pray to the Lord with words alone? Come I will show you a new way to the Lord – not with words or sayings but with song. We will sing and the Lord on high will understand us.”
It is not possible to realistically describe the music of the High Holy Days with words. Just as with any other endeavor the more one prepares in advance the more likely a positive outcome will result. Ask your cantor and rabbi for ways to better acquaint yourself with the High Holiday music of your particular synagogue.
Thanks to the internet we can listen to numerous settings of High Holy Day music. There are many sites which you can go to. Enter some variation on your search engine such Jewish High Holy Day music or music of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You will be surprised at the numerous sites that will come up. List the name of your favorite cantor or of a famous cantor and see what comes up on YouTube or just enter Kol Nidrei. Listen to all kinds of High Holy Day music from traditional to modern. Try to understand how the music relates to the meaning of the text. Decide what you like and what you don’t.
Listen to this music in advance and when the High Holy Days arrive see if this effort has enabled you to better experience the spiritual journey that we are on. May our prayers ascend to heaven on the wings of song. Shanah Tovah.
Cantor Jerry Berkowitz is the spiritual leader of Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue of Manitowoc.