The transcendental power of music
Remembering Harry Chapin, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman, their lives and their music, enables us to become better human beings.
Music can be transcendental and it enables us to become better human beings.
We sing our prayer, we sing around our Shabbat and holiday tables, and our first communal activity when leaving Egypt was to sing after G-d performed the miracle of parting the sea. There is a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Nechemyah in the Talmud, fifth chapter of Tractate Sotah, concerning whether Moses initiated the song and the people repeated line by line, or whether it was sung in unison. We are left with a question: Do we draw and maintain our inspiration from our leaders or form them as a community?
I was a child of the sixties. There were causes to believe in, causes to fight for – like civil rights – and causes to fight against – like the Vietnam War. There were leaders we believed in: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy – especially Bobby – all assassinated, depriving a generation of its potential greatness.
From a young age, next to a love of classical music (especially opera), the popular music that spoke to me was folk. Harry Chapin, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul and Mary all reflected the shifting moods and priorities of the times. They weaved the social conscience of our youth into melodies that we could sing along with. We dropped in along the concert trail with our friends, then with our wives, and then with our children. Harry Chapin moved us with stories of ordinary people, urging us all to adopt the causes he believed in, particularly hunger in America. After his tragic death at age 38, his widow, Sandy, said that "Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations and 82 charities. Harry wasn't interested in saving money. He always said, “Money is for people,” so he gave it away."
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach spoke to a generation of Jews through his stories and his music. Rav Shlomo was a complex individual and there were troubling aspects to his life, but his empathy for humanity and his generosity were undeniable; so much so that despite all the money he made from concerts during his lifetime, he died virtually penniless.
This past week marked the first yahrtzeit of Debbie Friedman. She came out of the Jewish summer camp movement, drawing inspiration from folk music, combining it with Jewish texts. Like Rav Shlomo, her music has become a liturgy unto itself, crossing denominational lines.
Last week, at a memorial concert in New York City, Cheryl Friedman remembered her sister: “Debbie was gifted beyond measure. But, first she was a good person. She gave and gave selflessly, often to her own detriment, for the enrichment of our People and Judaism… Her consistent message brought people together from every corner of the Jewish world and beyond. We respond to a messenger who lives what she speaks – what she sings. That is why Debbie’s impact was so profound. Her values were reflected in her music – and in her life.”
Where are the Harrys, Rav Shlomos and Debbies of today? We remember them through their music and are transported to another place. Their words are words of hope and love. Let us not lose sight of their message, the positive in their lives, and their melodies. May they continue to touch our hearts and minds, inspiring us to leave the world a better place, as they did.
Shirah (singing) is referred to ten times in the Bible. All of them are times of great emotion. How are we to express our joy, happiness, sadness and thanksgiving if not in song? Shirah brings us closer to G-d. It makes us like the angels. Nine songs have been sung. The tenth, Shir HaGeulah, the song of redemption, is referred to by the prophet Isaiah (26:1), "In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah..." I await that day with great anticipation.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.