by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
There is rarely a conversation in our home, where my wife Jessica and I do not find a way to incorporate an obscure song lyric. We find it fun and entertaining. Our children, not so much. Though on those rare occasions that they can incorporate a song lyric into the conversation, they each get a big smile on their face.
Rebbe Nachman is famous for saying “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always”. He is also known for saying “Even if you can’t sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your home. But sing.” It should be no surprise that this Shabbat, just prior to Sukkot, we read Parshat Haazinu. In last week’s parsha, Moshe is speaking about his imminent death. It would be so easy for Bnai Yisrael to immediately start mourning, yet we are commanded to write a song.
Music has the power to be therapeutic. The American Music Therapy Association explains on their website that music therapy interventions can be designed to: promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and promote physical rehabilitation. The song found at the end of the Torah is a form of therapy for the Jewish people.
The idea of music as therapy goes a step further, when considering research found on Alzheimers.net, about music therapy for dementia patients. The article shares a video of a man in a nursing home with dementia who can communicate about his love of music after hearing music from his past (https://youtu.be/fyZQf0p73QM). Dr. Laura Mosqueda, explains, in the article that “because music affects so many parts of the brain, it touches areas that may not be damaged by the disease and brings those pathways to the forefront.”
When we read from the Torah, we do so with a melody. According to Avraham Arieh Trugman, “Singing the Torah means to fully integrate its teachings and wisdom into our hearts and minds. We must connect the Torah we learn to our most essential being and not treat it as an intellectual pastime or pursuit. Singing our Torah connects its teachings to our deepest selves.”
A CNN article from March 2017 cites a study out of Australia which confirms that people who dance and go to concerts are happy. The study found that people who are actively “engaged with music through dancing and attending events like concerts and musicals reported a higher level of subjective wellbeing.” Music and song have a power of uplifting us.
Tania de Jong, expands on this in an article in the Huffington Post, writing that neuroscience proves that “every time you sing, you fire up the right temporal lobe of your brain, and release endorphins including oxytocin, which result in heightened states of pleasure, bliss, bonding and love. These chemicals also enhance the neuroplasticity of our brains, boost our immune system, fight illness, depression and strokes and help us handle pain better.”
Music also has the power to educate us. Matt Bar, founder of Bible Raps, uses hip hop music as “a lens to understand Jewish oral tradition.” Bar’s videos and workshops are used to elevate and connect to our ancient texts. In his Eli Talk, Bar emphasizes that oral tradition survives when you add your voice to it. Bar goes on to say that if our conversation remains authentic, our tradition remains alive and vital. That vitality is found through song. When lyrics move from a cerebral activity to putting a spirit behind words, it remains fresh in our minds. This is a further example of why we teach our students to incorporate the arts and creative writing in the daily learning.
There is no better sound in the hallways of our school than the sound of children singing. At Bornblum, song is used to teach prayers, teach about holidays, teach Hebrew, teach math, teach how a bill becomes a law and about the function of a conjunction junction. Song is also used to teach mindfulness, to help our students stop and relax. It is a way to bring joy into our lives.
Perhaps that is why a few weeks ago, in our Torah reading, we learn about the responsibility of V’samchta B’chagecha, V’hayita Ach Sameach, you shall rejoice in your festival… and you shall have nothing but joy. This joy, according to Rebbe Nachman is through song and singing.
If we take our celebration of Sukkot this coming week, as an expression of joy, through song, we are giving ourselves therapy and a connection to our past. Rabbi Akiva says it best: “Sing every day, sing every day” (Sanhedrin 99a-b), meaning that we should review our studies like a song that one sings over and over. It helps us to internalize it and make it a permanent part of our life. The more we sing, the more we make joy a part of our lives.
Wishing you a Sukkot full of song and joy.