Thursday, July 05, 2007
Songs of Awe, Songs of Joy
We all know the power of song. When we hear a moving song, whether of sadness or joy, it alters our mood. And depending on our feelings, we will seek out a particular song. Indeed, when happy we will spontaneously break out in song. It's as if we literally cannot contain ourselves, and must break out of our limitations.
Let's analyze the two movements, the two ways songs affect - or express - our emotions. The first elevates us. Such a song expresses a longing, a desire, a compulsion to get beyond ourselves. Often such songs are simple - melodies, tunes, wordless refrains. There is a sweetness about them.
Even when there are words, they speak of another, of an absorption of the self in something higher, of an abandonment of ego, the material, of a removal of physical limitations and a realization of the spiritual.
Many Chassidic niggunim (wordless tunes) express this longing of the soul. Jewish songs with words also emphasizes the emotional power of positive, uplifting music; the artists combine words of Tehillim, verses from the Torah, or allusions to them, with soul-stirring melodies.
And this leads inevitably to the second type of song. Here there is a bitterness, a recognition that we are not yet united with G-dliness, that we still reside - must reside - in the physical world. These are songs set, for example to the words of Tehillim 42: "As the hart cries out in thirst for the springs of water, so does my soul cry out in thirst for You, O G-d. My soul thirsts for G-d, for the living Almighty; when will I come and appear before G-d?"
If one type of song expresses a desire for closeness, a longing for negation of the self in an ecstatic inclusion of the soul within G-dliness, the other recognizes the distance between ourselves and G-d, how immersed in the mundane we truly are, how much the physical demands from us.
But as we all know, we do not remain mired in the bitterness, the sense of distance. Indeed, the anguish itself evokes the longing; the acknowledgment that we are not yet united, our souls are not yet elevated somehow elicits the joy that we can, and ultimately will, experience an attachment to and revelation of G-dliness. We become inspired, and that inspiration inspires us further until...
The song cycle reflects the rhythms of time, the moments and movements of the year.
Further, this emotional cycle of ascent and descent and further ascent has a parallel in the soul's journey, and its Divine Service. In Hebrew it is called ratza v'shav - a transcendent elevation and an imminent return. It embodies a fundamental concept, namely that every descent leads to a higher ascent; indeed, the higher ascent cannot be achieved without the descent.
Just as our songs cycle through the bittersweet, from songs of loss and separation to songs of joy and union, so the Jewish people have cycled through stages of occlusion and revelation, of ignorance and knowledge, of exile and redemption. In each mini-cycle the energy of descent fuels a greater ascent. And ultimately, our songs of loss and separation will energize the ultimate song of joy and union, a celebration of the final Redemption, as it says in Tehillim [126:2]: "Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyous song."