Using Music to get to the Mountaintop



Using Music to get to the Mountaintop

by Daniel R. Weiss

This week’s Wisdom is adapted from an article written in January 2016 and published by eJewish Philanthropy on January 28, 2016. It was written before I had any thoughts of moving to Memphis and the impact that this community would have on my family.

There is power found in song. It is all encompassing. It surrounds us. It is how we teach our children. It is in our connection to our faith. It is our connection to our history. It binds us with people of different faiths, ethnicities and races. It allows for introspection. By drawing connections to this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach and our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on this, his 90th birthday, song can lift us to the mountaintop.

Music is used in our classrooms daily. It is the method that we employ for teaching Hebrew language. Our Tal Am curriculum in First Grade is built upon songs and repetition. It is also the language of poetry. In Hebrew the word shir can be translated both as song or poem. Musical lyrics are often used in the teaching of English language and literature.

This week is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of song. We read of the Jewish people travelling through the sea, to freedom. We recount this great miracle each day in our morning prayers through the singing of Az Yashir. Az Yashir is the first song mentioned in the entire Bible. The words Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisrael, do not say that Moshe sang. The words do not say that Moshe and B’nai Yisrael sang. The words say, “so Moshe and the children of Israel will sing”.

The story of our Exodus from Egypt and the use of song is an idea to which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. felt deeply connected. Dr. King used the story of the Exodus as a comparison to the struggle for civil rights. In his final speech, the day before his assassination, here in Memphis, Tennessee, referred to as “On the Mountaintop”, Dr. King repeatedly referred to the plight of the “Israelites” as they were slaves in Egypt.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I often heard stories of Dr. King and his closeness with a local Cleveland rabbi named Arthur Joseph Lelyveld. Rabbi Lelyveld was the rabbi of Fairmount Temple, where my mother grew up. My mother was very fond of Rabbi Lelyveld and often shared insights and stories that he had taught her. Rabbi Lelyveld was active in the civil rights movement and helped register black voters in 1964, the same year that he was bloodied and suffered a concussion at the hands of segregationists in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Rabbi Lelyveld received an award from the NAACP for his distinguished service to the cause of freedom. Rabbi Lelyveld and Dr. King became close friends. They often wrote letters to each other sharing thoughts and objectives on how to work together for civil rights. Many of those letters are still on display at Fairmount Temple.
Rabbi Lelyveld was not the only rabbi to serve as a close ally of Dr. King. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, met Dr. King at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Together, the two spoke at the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubilee Convention in order to gain support for the Jews of Soviet Russia. Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King marched together in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Rabbi Heschel remarked that his “feet were praying”.

 

Rabbi Lelyveld received an award from the NAACP for his distinguished service to the cause of freedom. Rabbi Lelyveld and Dr. King became close friends. They often wrote letters to each other sharing thoughts and objectives on how to work together for civil rights. Many of those letters are still on display at Fairmount Temple.
Rabbi Lelyveld was not the only rabbi to serve as a close ally of Dr. King. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, met Dr. King at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Together, the two spoke at the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubilee Convention in order to gain support for the Jews of Soviet Russia. Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King marched together in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Rabbi Heschel remarked that his “feet were praying”.

Song and prayer go hand in hand, or in Heschel’s case, foot by foot. The words of Az Yashir are not just a song of freedom; they are a prayer. I can easily imagine the sound coming from the walls of water and footsteps marching through the sea unto freedom.

The idea of the title of Dr. King’s speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement. “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” is directly tied to the African-American spiritual song, compiled by John Wesley Work Jr., entitled “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. The words were later adapted and rewritten for the civil rights movement, by Peter, Paul and Mary, where the lyrics referred directly to Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt with a focus on the words “Let my people go”. John Wesley Work Jr. is also known for another Civil Rights related song, “Wade in the Water”, again referring to the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery, and Moses’ leadership.

As I listen to the musical accompaniment of “Wade in the Water” it is the drumbeat that draws me in. I can imagine the beat as the beat of the feet of the Jewish people as they travel through the sea and the Egyptian horses that gave chase.

One of iconic Jewish musician, Debbie Friedman’s most famous songs refers to this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. The song, called “Miriam’s Song”, focuses on Moses’ sister, Miriam and her reaction upon crossing the sea. The chorus strikes me as a further connection between the Jewish people and the times of the Civil Rights movement.

And the women dancing with their timbrels,
Followed Miriam as she sang her song,
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted,
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.

Miriam’s song is about praising God. It is about realizing that through song and dance, we can find a deeper connection, allowing not only our lips to prayer, but as Heschel said, our feet to pray. The Hebrew word associated with praying is L’hitpalel (literally, to pray). Hitpalel (pray) is reflexive, it means to examine, to judge oneself. When we truly pray, we are focusing on who we are and who we want to become. It is only when we can connect to our history, to those around us and to what is inside our own heart, that our song comes alive.

That, however, takes faith.

Please join us on January 31 at 6:30pm for Bornblum’s annual Curriculum Fair—Music Fest. This year’s fair will focus on how we incorporate music into our students’ educational experience. You will be inspired by the many ways music brings our students’ learning to life!

Shabbat Shalom,
Dan


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