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William Hamilton

That sweet melody humming inside you

“I asked him: What was the turning-point for you?” Our close friend Chaim Peri asked this question of one former student, from among the tens of thousands of successful graduates from his celebrated Youth Village. This particular boy, who’s now a healthy adult with a loving family, had come from an Eastern European Orphanage when he was just six-years-old. He had arrived traumatized and emotionally tattered.

“I recall exactly when that turning-point happened, Chaim. I was sitting in a room alone. Then I began to hear older children singing in a room nearby. I remember it well. They sang with such joy. I didn’t understand a single word. Not one word. Then my heart said to me: “These cannot be bad people. Bad people don’t sing this way.””

Songs and singing are prominent this Shabbat. This week’s passages include the Song following the parting of the Red Sea, and the Song of Deborah (Ex. 14, Judges: 4-5). Melodies can be tender. They can stir us at our core. They can enable our spirits to take flight. Perhaps this is why singing a song is introduced so early in our People’s infancy. We’d just left Egypt, barely born as a nation, when our primal reflex to sing follows our being saved from Pharaoh’s chariots at the Red Sea.

Of course, a melody only holds its spell for a short while. An upsetting story can thunder into your news-feed or inbox to short-circuit that sweet melody humming inside you. Our weekly portion appreciates this. It’s listening and it understands. Several low points follow not long after the soaring singing.

Manna from heaven gets introduced. Each day’s portion is miraculously measured to satisfy a day’s appetite. Moses makes it clear that leftovers aren’t permitted. When some people do try to hoard leftovers, the manna suddenly turns foul and inedible (Ex. 16:20). I take that as an important lesson about divinity. In its presence, everything feels fresh. The instant divinity is drained out of something, as soon as it evaporates, its expiration date yields displeasing odors and tastes.

So it’s good to return to our favorite melodies whenever we can. They’re like wellsprings. We all have them. What for some is a melody, for others is a meditative practice. It becomes your wellspring when you return to it often. Here’s one I love.

Joyous music makes us want to dance.

Sadly, we buried my beloved father-in-law, Debbie’s dad, Alvin Block, yesterday in Philadelphia. He was always early to the dance floor. We’ll miss him dearly.

Whether you’re in the mood to dance, or you’re not, like the 6-year-old boy who arrived in Israel with a dim and uncertain future, take a moment to incline your ear to music’s essential voice. May doing so, help you find and tune yours.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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