This weekend has a special name: “Shabbat Shirah” – the Shabbat of Song, so called because this week’s Torah portion contains the song sung by Israel after the parting of the Red Sea. Accordingly, this week’s essay addresses the soul of song – the power it has to transform our lives.
What gives music its power? How does it have the ability to transport us to another time and place? To lift a broken spirit? To bring a tear to a happy soul? Why does a song have the capacity to reach the depths of our heart, bring old memories alive, awaken our deepest aspirations and naturally cause us to dance to its beat?
What type of language is this language of song, and where did it originate? We learn the spoken language at home and at school. But who taught us how to sing?
What is the soul of song?
The mystics explain it this way:
How do souls travel? Bodies move about on legs or in vehicles. But what moves a soul? A soul doesn’t have legs and cannot be contained in an automobile or other vehicle. What carries our souls from one place to another?
The Kabbalah offers a fascinating answer: The only way a soul can move about is through a song. Without song the soul remains stuck in one place.
In the Holy Temple in Jerusalem there were fifteen steps corresponding to the fifteen Shir HaMaalos (song of ascents) in the book of Psalms (120-135), which the Levites would sing as they stood on the steps. In order to climb from one step to the next a song had to be sung.
In our material world we can convince ourselves that we are mobile – movers and shakers – even if our souls never budge an inch. There are people who chalk up millions of frequent flyer miles, others who move around in all the high circles, and yet others who are climbing the corporate ladder. But are they truly moving? Their bodies may be traveling places, but are their souls in flight? Then there are people who perhaps sit in the same place, praying or meditating, but spiritually they are moving millions of miles.
But in the spiritually intact Holy Temple, where spirit met matter and the physical was seamlessly aligned with its inner purpose, you simply could not move from one step to the next unless your soul was lifted through song.
Why do songs have this power? Because they are the language of the Divine.
When G-d created the universe, He consulted the angels: “Should I bestow upon the human race the gift of music?” The elitist angels unanimously replied with a resounding “no.” “The human race will not appreciate the sublime power of melody. They will abuse and commercialize it. They won’t know how to appreciate angelic, divine nature of song.
“Give us your gift of music,” the angels said, “and we will sing Your praises, we will sing Your songs. We will know how to use the power of melody to reach great spiritual heights.”
G-d considered their opinion, but then overruled them. “No. I will give the gift of music to humans. Because I want them to have something to remember Me with.
“Sometimes life will be difficult. In such times the pressures can be overbearing. Man can feel depressed and hopeless. I therefore want them to have song to remind them, that even you’re stuck in the dire straits of material existence, even when you are experiencing existential loneliness and “quiet desperation,” you can break out in song, which will lift your spirits.
“Sometimes life will be comfortable, too comfortable. Let man then sing to remember that there is more to life than instant gratification.
“Yes indeed,” G-d concluded, “I will give the human being My unique tongue – the language of music and song, so that he can use it to discover transcendence.”
The reason song has the ability to transport the soul is because its true nature and the source of its power is its Divine language: Song is a dialect from another plane. If the conventional word is the language of man, music is the language of the Divine.
Songs, therefore, are the wings of the soul. They have the ability to lift our spirits to unprecedented heights. They allow us to fly; to soar away to far-away places – places that are beyond pedestrian life and mundane monotony.
Song is spiritual transportation. As one Rebbe put it: The spoken and written word is the “quill of the mind;” Music is the “quill of the heart.” If a soul looks like a flame, it sounds like a song.
Ahh, who hasn’t been drawn by the wish to just go out and sing, unfettered, unbound, to the open heavens. To get away from it all and sing away, with your hands waving free, like there is no tomorrow. To close your eyes, and allow the music to take you to unknown places beyond the anguish and pain of life’s tribulations?
This may explain the compelling power of music in the last 50 years. Why youth today are drawn to music – in ways that are unprecedented in history. Being a language of the soul, music fills the deep spiritual void left by corrupt or irrelevant religion and other belief systems. For good or for bad, music has become the “hymns” of today’s souls and concerts their cathedrals. Starting back in the 50’s music represented the voice of rebellion, the expression of individuality, the challenge to the status-quo of the conformist “man in the grey flannel suit.” The soul found its expression in song – to free itself from the materialistic bondage of the body; a way for us to dialogue with G-d (whether we know it or not).
Unfortunately, like any powerful force, music too, untamed and unfocused, can be hijacked and turned into another hedonistic vehicle of indulgence rather than transcendence, narcissism rather than selflessness, entertainment instead of inspiration.
But at its heart song has a hold on our souls because it is ultimately Divine language – the natural language of the soul. (No accident that music is called “soul”).
Our challenge is to recognize the true nature of song’s power and the reason this gift was given to us: To allow us to touch the Divine and integrate it into our lives. Now just to listen to the pleasant harmonies and dance to its beat, but to allow the soulful language of music to refine our personalities, strengthen our commitments, connect with our higher calling, help us build healthy homes and families and illuminate each of our respective corners of the world with our unique light.
We live in a dichotomous, fragmented world. Matter and spirit compartmentalized make it terribly difficult to hear the music of our souls.
Instead, we fabricate a superficial language to maneuver in our mundane lives. Music then becomes an exotic escape to an island. In search of some relief from the quotidian, you plug in your headphones, and block out the world around you – and you soar on music’s wings. But then you have to return, and then the music dies…
In truth, however, an inner hum fills all of existence. Every creature, every molecule, every atom emits its own unique sound. Every soul pulsates and purrs. Even when the “rush hour” of our lives with all its extraneous noise drowns out the “gentle, subtle voice” within, the music continues to play (even if you’re not plugged in).
In a seamless world all our experiences would sound like a song, all our movements would look like a dance. If our insides and outsides would be aligned, we would be singing all the time, and we wouldn’t be able to move unless we had a song to sing us along (as it was in the Temple).
Every time you experience a moment of truth – an experience that resonates – we are hearing the inner music of existence.
How do we access the music within at all times? By getting in touch with your life’s purpose, and recognizing that every moment of your day, every activity, every interaction is a spiritual opportunity. You are charged with the mission to realize each of these opportunities by ensuring that all the material gain is simply a means to express higher spiritual truths and bring more virtue into this world.
This attitude taps into the very fabric of the harmonic chords of existence, which allow us to hear the music within.
In every life experience you have two options to choose from: To serve your own needs, or to serve a higher cause. When you touch the surface of the experience it usually will result in narcissistic results. But when you tap into the inner meaning of the experience, its music will play.
In every experience we can either just ride through the experience, or we can learn to play the inner chords that release a song.
There are people in this world that turn every thing they touch into music, every thing they come into contact with into a dance. They are alive, brimming with energy. They are electric, and everything that they touch becomes electrified.
Some people deaden every thing they touch. Some people bring every thing alive.
Imagine a world in which music is playing all the time. Imagine hearing a song in every breath you take, in every step you make. Imagine a life in which every move you feel the inner rhythm.
As we enter the “Shabbat of song” we are imbued with the power to turn our lives into one extended symphony.
High time to start singing.
Will you electrify your corner of the world or will you dampen it?
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