On the Jewish New Year, we read the story of Hannah, a barren woman who struggled for years to conceive a child. After finally giving birth to a son, she sang out in praise to God.
In discussing Hannah’s song, our scholars explained what the concept of “song” means within Jewish tradition. They tell us that “song” within the scriptural sense means understanding the complexity of the world and our place in it. They note that the whole world is singing, metaphorically speaking.
Science has shown this to be true. Singing, like speaking, is simply causing sound waves to vibrate in a way that resonates with ourselves. We know that everything, ourselves included, is vibrating to some degree or another.
Viewed within this framework of physics, harmonics, and natural resonance, we find that we are all “singing.” When Scriptural characters like Hannah have been able to see the “music,” they sing out. This same concept holds true in other places, like the Song of the Sea after the Exodus.
Song, our tradition tells us, is nothing less than the perception of the harmony of the world, the ability to see that the events that came beforehand — whether that is Hannah’s personal suffering before being blessed with a child or the supernatural elements in the Exodus after years of slavery — have led to the moments in which we find ourselves.
Moreover, song gives us the ability to connect with each other in a telepathic, nigh-imperceptible way. For proof, look no further than this article detailing how, after playing the same piece of music in a duet, musicians’ minds quite literally synchronized.
We can take this concept a little further by looking at the similarities between the words שיר “song” and שר “minister”. These words stem from the same linguistic root, and indicate a connection between the two concepts: those that understand the harmonious inner workings of a system will find themselves mastering that system. Or in other words: those that sing, rule.
While anyone and everyone can embrace the hidden “song” of our world, it seems that for famous author Elie Wiesel there may be something in the Jewish soul that yearns to sing out for a different reason.
In his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel tells a story of an unexpected turning point in his life. The year is 1965, the place Moscow. The Soviet Union has already begun to embrace anti-Semitic attitudes that will escalate in the decades to come. Wiesel is stumbling through a crowd of young Jews during a Simhat Torah event when he sees a “lovely young woman who seemed to dominate the crowd.”
“Who are we?” she shouts to the crowd, which responds, “Ivrei, Jews, we are Jews!” “And who were we yesterday?” the frenetic dialogue continues. The crowd calls back, “Jews, we were Jews, and Jews we want to be!”
Wiesel, caught up in the power of the moment, manages to get close enough to the woman to ask what she knows about Judaism. She replies by saying that in truth she doesn’t know much, just what her grandparents taught her. After seeing her proudly promote her Jewishness, this simple answer prompts Wiesel to ask her why she was so determined to be Jewish. The women shrugs, and Wiesel, perhaps feeling let down by the lackluster response, turns to leave.
But she catches him by the sleeve and pulls him back. “You asked an important question, and I owe you an honest answer. Why do I so want to remain Jewish? Well, it’s because I love to sing.”
Wiesel was taken aback by the woman’s words. He writes:
“Her answer dazzled me and I felt like embracing her. Yes, a Jew is someone who sings. He even sings a few steps from the Lyubianka Prison. And he sings when he is joyful and when he is not. A Jew is someone who turns his suffering into a song, his solitude into a chanted prayer. I thanked the young woman: ‘I will not forget the lesson you have just taught me.’”
“It is through song,” Wiesel writes, “that the Jewish soul expresses itself best; it is melody that keeps it alive when there is every reason for sadness.”
For Wiesel, song is about emotion, not understanding. I do not doubt his connection between song and the Jewish soul. But Hannah teaches us that song is meant for moments of joy and clarity as well. It is there in the good times and the bad, when we understand our lot in life and when we don’t.
These approaches — that song is an expression of deep emotion of both the positive and negative varieties and that it is a metaphor for the mechanisms of our physical world — indicate that song, like God, is present at all times and in all places. We can only hope to recognize them both in our lives, and join in melody.
I wish you all a year of perception, understanding, mastery, and harmony. A year of resilience, transformation, and strength in the face of adversity. In short, a year of song.