Wednesday, 01 Oct 2014

Written by Zahavit Shalev

Lately I’m suffering from language fatigue. I might be a bit depressed, or overwhelmed, or just experiencing student rabbi angst about adding to the massive and growing pile of teachings given by the many (wiser, wittier, whatever) rabbis and teachers in the world.

We’re a very verbose, intellectual people and we have a lot of available texts, especially on Yom Kippur when we have to fill an entire day with the stuff. Still, I know what I really go to shul for: it’s for the singing.

Singing cuts through everything, going beyond the many millions of words we say. And yes, I know that the singing at my shul and yours won’t always be beautiful but that’s not the point. Synagogues are one of the places where we humans sing together. And that’s what I need to be doing on the most awe-full day of the year.

In Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber relates a story about Zusya of Hanipol:

One Erev Yom Kippur, Zusya hears a cantor singing strangely and beautifully salachti [I have forgiven you], God’s response to our penitential prayers. Terribly moved, Zusya exclaims: Lord of the Universe! Had Israel not sinned, such a song could never have been sung to You.

Songs are the raw emotion of our lives – the pain and frustration (and wonderment and joy) transmuted into something that can be communicated.

Yom Kippur exists, this story tells us, because we have made mistakes. But that’s ok, because Yom Kippur allows us to express our fervent desire to put things right, to strive for connection and integration. And this longing is perhaps the most powerful force there is. We, the universe, even God, are richer for the brokenness which gives way to a greater wholeness. Yom Kippur, and in fact this mysterious and powerful exchange, are brought into being because of sin!

All the pain and longing and suffering in the world! Sometimes we find ourselves overwhelmed by confusion and mess, but songs give us release, an outlet for these feelings so we can use this energy to connect – with ourselves, with others, with God.

All songs gesture towards this desire for connection. Once, a rabbi overheard a child singing whilst herding his geese:

Shechinah, Shechinah, how far how far!
Galut, Galut, how endless you are!
But if the Galut were taken away.
We could be together, together to stay.

Responding to the rabbi’s interest in the song’s origin, the child replies that all the herdsmen sing it. He admits though, that he has doctored the words slightly. When others sing the song it goes:

Beloved, Beloved, how far how far!
Woods, woods, how endless you are!
But if the woods were taken away
We could be together, together to stay.

The child explains that his adjustments have clarified the meaning of the song. Everyone knows that the beloved must be the Shechinah [a name for God], and that the woods refer to galut [exile] so why not just say so in the first place?

The boy goes off to become a rabbi, and learns many other songs, but to the end of his days, it is said, he continues to sing the songs of the Hungarian herdsmen of his childhood, changing only a word here and there.

The simplest songs are sometimes the most expressive. A handful of words and just three chords can convey a great deal. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would sing:

Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

Sky is You! Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,

Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

One step further lies the ultimate expression of Chassidic song: the niggun, the wordless melody, the most fitting vehicle for the emotion of yearning.

When Leonard Cohen released a collection of poems called The Book of Longing he was asked: What’s the deal with longing? Are you going to write The Book of Fulfillment next? The answer came back in that worldly, sardonic, wry voice: I’ve no plans to do that. What’s fulfillment got to offer?

Yes indeed – what has fulfillment got to offer? The desire for connection, for homecoming, for a return to the source of life, for unity, that’s what teshuvah is. That’s what Elul and Selichot, and Rosh Hashanah and the shofar, and the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur, and Kol Nidrei, and the Viddui, and Yizkor, and the Avodah, and the Martyrology, and the Book of Jonah, and Neilah are all ultimately about. They are all expressions of that ineffable longing.

So that’s what I’m really going to shul for on Yom Kippur: to sing!.

Zahavit Shalev
Rabbinic Student Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.