A Hasidic tale recounts that when the Baal Shem Tov sensed that a calamity was approaching for his people, he would retreat to a place in the forest. There, he would light a fire, recite a prayer, and accompany it with a melody that flowed from his soul, filled his body, and enveloped the forest. This would work the miracle of averting the impending disaster.
Years went by, when it fell upon his disciple to implore heaven in a similar situation and he went to the same spot in the forest and said:
"God, Creator of all that is, I don't know how to kindle the fire, but I know the prayer, and I remember the melody clearly. I beseech You, Adonai my Lord, may that be enough."
And it was enough to nullify the looming calamity for the people.
More years passed, and the next disciple had to go to the forest for the same reason. Not knowing exactly where to go, he found a place in the woods that seemed suitable and said in his heart:
"God, Creator of all that is, I don't know how to kindle the fire, nor do I know the place in the forest, but I vaguely remember the prayer, and the melody still resonates within me at this moment when I need You. I beseech You, Adonai my Lord, may that be enough."
And it was enough to nullify the impending disaster for the people.
That is the magic of Nigunim, those wordless melodies that convey our Yiddishkeit, that taste of us and our history, and help elevate us toward the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
It seems that Moses knew of this resource. In this enormous adventure that is about to conclude with the entry of the People of Israel into the Promised Land, after 40 years of molding them as a people, teaching and explaining the law that would accompany them for millennia, the Rav of Rabbanim, the great prophet, wants them to remember.
And what is the best way to aid that memory? Music, poetry, recitation. That is Ha'azinu, this week's parasha, a song summarizing the history of the People of Israel and their loving connection with the Kadosh Baruch Hu, written as beautiful poetry.
We as a People often make use of music. The Book of Psalms which begins in its first chapters with an acknowledgment of the path the righteous must follow ends in the final psalms bursting into praise accompanied by various instruments.
Our prayers, for the most part, have music, nearly all of them. Less than a week ago, we reacquainted ourselves with the melodies of Unetane Tokef, which, with a terribly dramatic melody, immerses us in the severity with which we must enter the dreadful days leading to divine judgment on Yom Kippur. And with the chords of Kol Nidre, we will plunge deeply into it.
We read the Scroll of Esther with a joyful chant, while the Lamentations of Eicha that we read on Tisha B'Av fill us with anguish for the destruction it recounts.
When cantors are taught to interpret the prayers on various occasions in our calendar, it is emphasized that the pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, have a different melody than the Sabbaths. In this way, the praying people can identify and immerse themselves in the spirit of each holiday.
It would be more difficult for us to remember the Shema text if it were not for the cantillation (ritual chanting) with which we accompany its reading.
Music helps. Music helps us remember.
Incredibly, that is what Moses did. He wrote a song, he wrote poetry, but according to tradition, it was sung, it was transmitted through song. In his final discourse before his death, he needed the transmission not to remain with the first generation, but through song, for generations to remember - the place, the fire, the prayer, and of course, the melody.
Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Chatima Tova.
May we have a beautiful Shabbat and a good sealing for a new life... filled with music.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier