As a newly observant Jew, I’ve picked up on many new customs this past year after tip-toeing around the Torah for most of my Jewish life (some 14 years and counting, B”H). And despite being a convert, I feel more like a Baal Teshuva having gone from 0 to 10 in a relatively short amount of time. Many new practices (like keeping Shabbat) have been low-hanging fruit, but others, like saying Asher Yatzar (the blessing for each time you go to the bathroom) have taken a little more getting used to. So when I learned about the Jewish custom of mourning during Sefirat Haomer—the 7-week period between Passover and Shavuot, I had to brace myself for what felt like a rather lengthy commitment.
As with every new observance I’ve committed to undertake, I started with a bit of research to gain understanding. I learned that we mourn for the loss of 24,000 Jews—no less the students of our great sage, Rabbi Akiva (HY”D), whose disrespect for one another resulted in the spread of a deadly plague. Sounding all too familiar, it was easy to get on board with mourning their loss, in addition to the many losses we’ve had from the Coronavirus this year. I also learned there are varying customs in the length of mourning observed but as neither felt more compelling than the other, I decided to be machmir and observe all 7 weeks (as was the custom of the Holy Arizal (ZI”A)). During this time, I would honor the 4 observances undertaken by Jewish mourners by refraining from marriage and wedding celebrations, refraining from cutting my hair, refraining from buying and/or wearing new clothes, and refraining from listening to instrumental music. As a single gal stuck at home like everyone else during this time, the first 3 were basically non-factors, making music my only loss for the next 50 days (or 52 to be exact, including the first day of Pesach and 2 days of Shavuot).
Here’s where I insert some background and disclaimers: 1) Since becoming observant, I’ve gradually listened to far less music to begin with, owing in part to having fewer options (Watch my video: When Being Frum is Killing your Vibe (Kosher vs. Mainstream Music)) and also because I generally have less time (being observant definitely keeps you busy). 2) I’ve been living with my non-Jewish family, and as a guest in their home, I have a general rule of thumb not to let my observances infringe on their way of life. That being said, I would stop listening to music on my own but not ask them to turn off any music they were listening to. As a result, I would still be exposed to at least some music in the background. 3) For the very same reason, I decided not to stop teaching my niece violin, as she’s relied on our home learning since social-distancing began. While I would no longer use my own instrument, I would still keep up our lessons since in any case, I would undoubtedly hear her practicing at home.
So what was it like to avoid the sound of music? At first, a bit solemn. Then, downright boring. And finally…it became totally peaceful.
As someone who’s not that big into music (I’ve only been to 1 concert in my life (ironically, “Bad Religion”) though it was mostly for a guy I was dating rather than for the music itself), I suddenly realized how much I relied on it to get by. I’d play a “focus/study” playlist while davening Shacharit (helping me get through the harder bits like Mishna Zevachim which becomes pretty epic with just the right soundtrack). I’d listen to binaural beats while studying, working or meditating, making them a pretty major part of my life. Whenever I wanted to unwind, I’d turn on Lana Del Rey, listening obsessively to my favorite songs on repeat.
But without music to deliver me into an altered state of mind, it was like being sober for the very first time. Instead of drowning out my emotions, I just let myself feel them. Instead of artificially injecting my environment with sound, I listened—actually listened, to the natural world around me. The birds. The lawn mower. My sister laughing. I felt more in tune with my surroundings and rather than experience a solemn period of mourning, I found myself living what felt like one long Shabbat, surrendering myself to a state of receiving.
This morning, I fired up Spotify as I started my prayers but halfway through Pesukei Dezimra, I turned off the music and sank back into silence. Like a true Sunday morning, I longed for Shabbat—that feeling of stillness and purely existing. While I’m not proposing we ever leave music behind, the last 50 days have taught me to appreciate silence. Among other things, spirituality is about discovering the Self, but the more we drown ourselves in music (or Netflix, TV, or any other form of media), the more we distance ourselves from a raw state of being. Without music to distract me, I spent more time with my Self and will vouch that it was a transformative experience.
A life without music is nothing to strive for, but if the idea of prolonged silence makes you uneasy, then it might be worthwhile to give it a try. Thanks to my detox, I’m sure I’ll listen to less music moving forward, but I’ll admit that I’m relieved the Omer is over (until next year!).
Originally shared on the Shema Israel! Blog published by BARA Media™