For my 40th birthday my 15 and 12 year old daughters have booked to take me to a concert by the singer Yishai Ribo in Jerusalem in September. I can’t explain the anticipation in our house for this event (both on their and my parts). We all listen to his music, we all sing along, and though for my girls it’s predominantly about the genre and tune, they also know that to me the words and composition of the verses are what moves me to tears. It’s true my teenagers at present are not particularly interested in hearing my latest thoughts on a Torah text, but they will say to me “Ima listen to the words of Yishai Ribo’s song, you’ll love it”. Last week he released a song in preparation for Yom Kippur called סדר העבודה. My daughter came home and immediately played it to me – “Ima you’ll love it, it’s so powerful.” She was right, the first time I heard it I had tears running down my cheeks. I can’t explain what it was that touched me so deeply – the words, the music, the sublime beauty of its composition and choice of verses, but it moved me to a plane beyond the here and now.
The Avoda (Priestly service) of the Kohanim that we painstakingly describe during the Musaf prayer on Yom Kippur has never really spoken to me – I didn’t really get it; the sprinkling of the blood, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) going in to initiate some kind of incantatory process. It just was not the kind of teshuva (repentance) that I identify with in the 21st century. I was all about the return to self and God, about reflection on who we are inside, about incremental, mindful human change .
But his song, through the music, words and composition (it’s 6 minutes long and he builds up to the climax at the end just like the avoda on Yom Kippur) reframed the entire paradigm of the priestly procedure for me more than any text has ever done. His song woke in me a realisation that the avoda was more than diminutive acts of worship but rather a national collective experience of ‘yirat elokim’, a moment of ineffability. A moment of pure kedusha– holiness, a moment of amazement that God in His mercy grants us the conditions to return and reconnect with ourselves and Him. I realised how powerful, awe inspiring and reverential the whole experience must have been. I suddenly identified intensely with the words of Abraham Yehoshua Heschel, “The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal.”
Bouncing between the words of the avoda and the moments of divine compassion, the song endorses the tension between the priestly repentance composed of din – strict justice, legalistic worship, penitential prayers and magical atonement and prophetic repentance – that is deep introspection, incremental change and a more universal generic adoption of justice and righteousness.
In fact I would say that the genre Yishai Ribo represents as well as Idan Amedi, Chanan Ben Ari, Natan Goshen, Benayahu, Shuli Rand, Amir Dadon, Idan Reichel, and many others is in and of itself emblematic of a kind of contemporary national teshuva. These are artists, some religious others not, who take classic religious liturgy and refashion the words cutting and pasting from different sources and texts, adding their own carefully chosen lyrics to weave a tapestry of melodic prose into the most beautiful, uplifting soul-searching litany of music and song. This interpretive process brings with it not only a new sense of creativity and artistry but is often a commentary on the social, religious and even political questions and challenges that face us as a people and individuals. Each of them in their own way creates a unique narrative which is underpinned by a theological story and spiritual journey. Theirs is a contemporary act of redemption.
This is unprecedented in our times. In chutz l’aretz when I grew up we either had secular music or religious music, and the religious music was made up solely of verses from religious sources verbatim with the very distinctive Chassidic niggun (tune) attached to it. And though it had its own beauty and distinctive genre that I certainly enjoyed and benefited from, it was far removed from the genre we experience here today in Israel.
To me this reflects an historical moment of ‘teshuva’ a national ‘return’ not in the prosaic sense of sin and repentance, but in the elusive sense of a national awakening. In returning to our ancient land we also have returned to our ancient texts and have initiated a radical interpretive process. These artists are demanding that we pay attention to our ancient tradition and liturgy as they empower it to speak to the current generation in their existential journey. In doing so the text becomes a source of reflection and inspiration in our national consciousness. From this they create music that is not just ‘song’ but rather a meditative journey wrought with challenging questions, difficult moments, heart-rending dilemmas but also deeply religious, maybe not in the traditional sense and that itself is the epiphany. Harbouring moments of awe, reverence and revelation their genre evokes a sentiment that pulls us away from the sometimes empty aesthetics and hollowness of our lives and reminds us that there is hope, there is depth and there is profound goodness both within ourselves and amongst the best of artistic youth in Israel. These artists are listened to by those in all walks of life, religious and non-religious alike. On national radio we hear our ancient scripture weaved into a melody of existential yearnings and modern reflections broadcast all across the country. When I hear the verses from the Tefilla on Yom Kippur sung by Yishai Ribo or Shuli Rand in his pervading voice sing ‘Ayeka’ -the first word God spoke to mankind- blasting on Gal Galatz (the national pop radio station), I for one experience that awe that Heschel describes above and it makes me feel both humble and proud to be part of this miraculous nation and state. How fortunate we are to live in a time that has seen our people literally rise from ashes to an age when we can open our hearts, minds and souls to this type of religious and national revival – each of these artists and their compositions reminds us that we are living in redemptive times.