The brilliant doctor, researcher, and author Oliver Sacks—famous for the book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat--Sacks once related the story of a gifted musicologist who was struck with a terrible brain infection. The infection left him with absolutely no short-term memory. He was completely incapable to making connections, and, if you can imagine this—he was stuck in a string of endless PRESENTS. Every moment was new to him. But there was one thing—one activity—that kept him out of total isolation. Perhaps you can guess what it was. It was MUSIC. He could still sing, play the organ, and even conduct a choir. Music enabled him to create continuity when nothing else in his life allowed him to do that.
Maybe you can relate to that phenomenon. I know I can. When I visit people in nursing homes—when I visited my own mother in her nursing home—even when people seem to be without any awareness of their surroundings. Even when people are completely unable to communicate. They can still SING. They can still remember music. And it seems to give them some joy. Somehow, they can see and feel the power of music to move beyond the present, to move beyond themselves.
Think about how important music is to Judaism. Can you imagine the Kol Nidre prayer without its amazingly evocative melody? Without that melody, it’s nothing but a very dry piece of legal instructions. But, with the melody, we feel the real power of those words. And it’s not just Kol Nidre—it’s every aspect of our religious lives. As Jews, we know exactly where we are in the calendar, because of the melodies. We could close our eyes, and we’d still know when it’s Shabbas or a weekday. We’d know when it’s the High Holidays. We’d know when someone is chanting a Haftorah or laening from the Torah. We have distinct melodies for the Megillot, and on Tisha Ba’av, we chant Eichah, the book of Lamentations, with its own unique trop. Who doesn’t feel the centuries of tears Jews have shed when we hear that melody?
And the Torah itself honors music. In fact, there are ten songs that are part of our scripture, and we will read one tomorrow.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. What is the first thing the Israelites do AS A PEOPLE? They burst into song! They sing spontaneously, and praise God for the miracle they have just experienced.
But—if it’s not obvious by now—I think of music itself as a kind of miracle. When we hear music, or play music, we create connections and memories. We wake up our souls. I think I love singing barbershop quartet music because, for me, it feels as though I am making a real contribution to the end result. My voice gets lost in the larger sound that is the purpose of barbershop. In doing so, I am supporting the other three singers, and, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t hear each of us. You’d just hear one sound.
When it works, there’s nothing like it.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—no relation to the Oliver Sacks I mentioned earlier—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls music a “signal of transcendence.” Faith is not science, he says. Rather, faith is more like music. In his words, “science analyses, music integrates.” Think about that distinction: SCIENCE ANALYSES, MUSIC INTEGRATES. So science takes things apart, and music—like faith—brings them together. And, according to Sacks, just as music connects note to note, so faith connects the different episodes of our lives and finds a way to make meaning out of them. Here’s a direct quote from Rabbi Sacks: “Faith teaches us to hear the music beneath the noise.”
And I think we can all agree that there is SO MUCH NOISE out there. Maybe more than ever we need music to make sense of the noise. AND, of course, FAITH. How inspiring that we have a way—through music and through faith—to feel beyond the noise to find meaning. In a deep sense, what we are doing is creating HARMONY. Musical harmony and spiritual harmony. And that’s a real gift from God.