Parashat Va’etchanan: Sweetening the Divine Word

Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When, at Mount Sinai, the Israelites heard the word “Anochi” (“I” — the first word of “The Ten Words”), their souls left them, as it says:[1] “If we hear the voice of God any more, we will die.” It is also written:[2] “My soul departed when He spoke.”  Then the Word went back to the Holy One blessed be He and said: ”Lord of the Universe, You live eternally and Your Torah lives eternally, but You have sent me to the dead. They are all dead!” Thereupon, the Holy One blessed be He sweetened the Word for them… Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: The Torah that God gave to Israel restored their souls to them, as it says:[3] “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul.”[4]

It may perhaps be argued that this Midrash, like no other text, encapsulates the essence of Judaism and its dialectic nature. The tension between Jewish Law and the near hopelessness of man to live by it, survive it and simultaneously obey it with great fervor is at the very core of Judaism’s complexity.

The Divine Word is deadly and causes paralysis. The Word, wrought by fire in the upper world, is unmanageable and wreaks havoc once it descends. Its demands are not of this world; they belong to the angels. The Word therefore comes to naught once it enters the human sphere, since there is no one to receive it. All have died before the Word is able to pronounce its second word. How then can it delight the living soul?

The answer is: sweetness. It has to have grace and therefore must be put to music. The problem with the Word is that it carries the possibility of literal-mindedness[5] and takes the word for what it is, robbing it of its inner spiritual meaning. The language of faith employs only a few words in its own spirit. Most of its terms are borrowed from the world in which the Word creates physical images in the mind of man. But the Divine Word needs to be heard, not seen. To hear is to perceive what is beyond the utterance of the mouth. To live with the Word is to discover the ineffable and act on it through the direction of the Law. The mitzvot are founded on the appreciation of the unimaginable, but they become poison when performed only for the sake of the deed.

Rabbi Shefatia said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: If one reads the Torah without a melody, or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him Scripture says:[6] “So, too, I gave them statutes that were not good and laws by which they could not live.” [7]

When one learns Torah without spiritual sweetness symbolized in a melody, which takes the words far beyond their literary meaning, the biblical text turns into a deadly poison. Similarly, to observe a commandment without sweetness is like consuming a medicine in which the healing components have gone bad. They are not only neutralized but have become mortally dangerous.

The function of music is to connect the Word with Heaven. It is not so much the music that man plays on an instrument or sings, but the music of his soul, which is externalized through the use of an instrument or song. It leads man to the edge of the infinite and allows him to gaze, just for a few moments, into the Other. Music is the art of word exegesis. While a word on its own is dead, it is resurrected when touched by music. Music is the refutation of human finality.  As such, it is the sweetness that God added to His Word when the Word alone was wreaking havoc. It is able to revive man when he dies as he is confronted with the bare Word at Sinai. Life without music is death—poignantly bitter when one realizes that one has never really lived.

There is little meaning in living by Halacha if one does not hear its grace. It is not a life of Halachic observance that we need, but a life of experiencing Halacha as a daily living music recital. Observance alone does not propel man to a level of existence where he realizes that there is more to life than the mind can grasp.

Jewish education has often been founded on the Word before it turned to God to be sweetened. As a result, there are many casualties and a large part of our nation has been paralyzed.

It is the great task of Jewish educators and thinkers to send the Word back to God and ask Him to teach them how to sweeten it.


[1] Devarim 5:22.

[2] Shir HaShirim 5:6.

[3] Tehillim 19:8.

[4] Shir HaShirim Rabbah, V, 16, iii.

[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 179.

[6] Yechezkel 20:25.

[7] Megillah 32a.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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