The Latest from BZBI

Living in Song

Shlah L'kha 5779 / 29 June 2019

July 3, 2019

Sometimes you steer the d’var Torah, and sometimes the d’var Torah steers you. Toward the end of Massekhet Sotah[1] there is a long midrash that parses our Torah portion, Shlah, in minute detail before sliding into a discussion of the incident during David’s reign when Uzza touched the Ark of the Covenant and got zapped by God; it then concludes with a quotation from Psalm 119, a favorite for the authors of midrash because it is an 8x acrostic:

זְ֭מִרוֹת הָֽיוּ־לִ֥י חֻקֶּ֗יךָ בְּבֵ֣ית מְגוּרָֽי׃

Songs have your statutes been for me, in the house of my dwellings.[2]

At first, the sentiment seems easy to understand: King David loved learning Torah so much, it was as joyful for him as song — which we know he loved a lot. But a second look reveals something a little strange in the phrasing: בְּבֵ֣ית מְגוּרָֽי, “in the house of my dwellings,” plural. One house, many dwellings? Batei megurai would be the multiple houses I dwelled in; beit meguri would indicate the one house that I live in. What does the verse mean by בְּבֵ֣ית מְגוּרָֽי?

Rabbi Menahem Meiri, the preeminent scholar of Jewish Provence, offers an alternative reading based on another verse in Psalms that uses the word מָג֪וֹר to mean “terror.”[3] Based on the close sound of the two words, Meiri reads בְּבֵ֣ית מְגוּרָֽי as “in the house of my fears” — any place where we feel afraid because of life’s uncertainty. Just as song has the power to lift our spirits and inspire hope, he explains, King David also turned to his study of Torah to keep the faith in times of darkness.[4]

Anthropologists have demonstrated that song is a universal feature of human life — it exists in every culture, and we have evidence of song as far back as we have evidence of anything else at all. Singing to God, however, is perhaps not universal, at least according to midrashic tradition. Shemot Rabbah asserts that throughout history, no one — not Adam, Abraham, or the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs — sang to God until the Israelites stood at the Red Sea and sang Shirat ha-Yam, the verses beginning אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ that we sing each morning.[5] 

Volumes of midrash have been written about the use of a future tense verb, יָשִֽׁיר, “will sing,” for a song that supposedly already happened. This morning I’ll focus on just one, which connects Shirat ha-Yam with the hopes we hold in our heart when we turn to God in prayer.[6] What happens when those hopes do not come to pass? How should we respond?

For an answer, they turn to the familiar verse from the end of Psalm 27, recited each year in the two-month period that surrounds the High Holy Days:

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳ חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳׃

Put hope in Adonai; let your heart be strong and mighty, and put hope in Adonai.[7]

Note how the verse repeats the phrase, קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־ה׳, “Put hope in Adonai.” We start with hope, but we are asked to conclude with hope as well. Now, that’s fine, but it begs a deeper question: how, exactly, are we supposed to do that? Can we just snap our fingers and conjure up more hope when our yearnings have so far proven fruitless?

We find an answer in the teachings of Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, one of the most beloved Hasidic masters. In reading Shirat ha-Yam, he points out that as joyful as the Israelites must have been at their deliverance from Pharaoh, joy is essentially an emotion, which lives in the heart. If they are joyful in their heart, what need is there to also sing the joy out loud?

Reb Levi Yitzhak reminds us that, even at our best moments, it’s hard to hold onto that joy; the feeling can sometimes falter. But when we sing in a moment of joy, the song holds and extends the feeling. If our hearts pause, the song brings us back and renews the joy. The Israelites sang, Reb Levi Yitzhak teaches, because they wanted to maintain their joy at God’s redemption and even take it higher and higher.[8]

זְ֭מִרוֹת הָֽיוּ־לִ֥י חֻקֶּ֗יךָ בְּבֵ֣ית מְגוּרָֽי׃

Songs have your statutes been for me, in the house of my dwellings, in the house of my fears.[9]

Rabbi Yosef– when you became our Director of Sacred Music, a lot of people wondered: what does the new title mean? And in the years since you assumed that role, you have shown us what is possible when Torah and song come together: how they feed into each other, soothing our pain at life’s most difficult moments and lifting us above and beyond our highest joys. Your voice — in singing and in learning — has guided us through these past five years. You have been there for all of us, offering a comforting word, sharing a laugh, holding our hands through sadness and embracing our happiness as your own.

I am deeply grateful for the passion that you brought to our work together — as the midrash asks us to do, always trying again when things got tough, finding a new way when a roadblock appeared. We’ve relied on one another as we navigated uncertain waters, and we’ve also shared success in much of what we’ve worked to build here.

Most of all, we have benefitted from your commitment to bringing others into everything you do: focusing our efforts for social justice and drawing together the teams that have already accomplished so much in a short time; inviting all of us to stand with you in the center aisle so our voices could join and carry us higher; teaching Torah in your classes, here in the sanctuary, and in each and every interaction you had with members of our community.

Of course, this is a funny sort of good-bye; you’ll be back on this bima with me and Rabbi Annie when Rosh HaShanah rolls around, and we are all blessed that you and your family will remain part of the BZBI community. Still, you are moving on, and I can think of no more fitting place for your next step than the Rising Song Institute. I look forward to seeing and supporting everything that you and Joey are going to build in this next phase of your career; and so I will conclude with words that I have already invoked: חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ, “let your heart be strong and mighty.”

[1] Sotah 35a

[2] Psalm 119:54.

[3] Psalm 31:14, as translated by Robert Alter.

[4] Meiri, Psalm 119:54.

[5] Shemot Rabbah, Beshallah 23.4.

[6] Tanhuma (Buber) Beshallah 12.

[7] Psalm 27:14.

[8] Kedushat Levi, Beshallah.

[9] Psalm 119:54.