Ever since primitive people discovered how to fashion instruments to create musical sounds, music has held a special power. This has been especially true for the Jewish people. Moses, Miriam, Deborah the Judge and King David the Psalmist all celebrated personal deliverance through their songs (and sometimes with dance). The Psalmist claims that he can solve any riddle with his harp (Psalm 49:5). We often think that riddles and problems are puzzles that require a single solution after much analysis. How can I wear my new shirt if the collar is smaller than my neck size? What is the best way to fit all of these gifts into this box for shipping? We are usually able to figure it all out through trial and error. But the Psalmist reminds us that some problems are not solved – they actually evaporate through music.
When we feel unhappy or sick or hurt, the harp may be the answer. Music has the amazing power to go beyond words. It allows us to express deep-rooted feelings in ways that words cannot. My parents bought me my first guitar when I became a Bar Mitzvah, and since that day I have never stopped playing. This year, for the first time in my rabbinic career I played guitar throughout the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in Wildwood New Jersey. The instrumental accompaniment infused the service with palpable energy and resounding participation from the congregation that was as moving to me as it was to them. They said they were drawn into the prayers, and the hours flew by like minutes.
Now that the holiday season is past, I have returned to my part-time work as a music therapist for patients receiving palliative care. I play my guitar, I sing for (and sometimes with) them, I encourage them to keep the beat with rhythm instruments, to make any special requests, even to talk about memories that the songs evoke. Very often, the music unlocks memories; sometimes people who have not spoken in a very long time sing or hum along, or smile, or cry, or keep the beat. Sometimes family members join us and are gratified to see their loved ones engaged in ways that they are not much of the time.
My teacher the late Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that the function of music is to help us to live through a moment of confrontation with the presence of God. The role of humans is to be the voice of God’s glory. A song is not only an act of expression but also a way of bringing down the spirit from heaven to earth. It is said that King David found answers to life’s mysteries when he played on his harp. Through my work today I was blessed with such a rare transcendent experience. As Rabbi David Wolpe reminds us, sometimes when the music begins, our questioning grows quiet and the air swells with a meaning far beyond words.
May you also find the music and the meaning in your life.