The Divine Word is deadly – look to melody

The function of music is to connect the Word with Heaven.

Violin player (illustrative photo) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Violin player (illustrative photo)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “When, at Mount Sinai, the Israelites heard the word ‘Anochi’ [‘I’ – the first word of ‘The Ten Words’], their souls left them, as it says [Deuteronomy 5:22]: ‘If we hear the voice of God any more, we will die.’ It is also written [Song of Songs 5:6]: ‘My soul departed when He spoke.’ Then the Word went back to the Holy One blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You live eternally and Your Torah lives eternally, but You have sent me to the dead. They are all dead!’ Thereupon, the Holy One blessed be He sweetened the Word for them.... Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: The Torah which God gave to Israel restored their souls to them, as it says [Tehillim 19:8]: ‘The Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul’ [Song of Songs Rabba, V,16,111].”
It may perhaps be argued that this Midrash, like no other text, encapsulates the essence of Judaism and its dialectic nature. The tension between Jewish Law and the near hopelessness of man to live by it, survive it and simultaneously obey it with great fervor is at the very core of Judaism’s complexity.
The Divine Word is deadly and causes paralysis. The Word, wrought by fire in the upper world, is unmanageable and wreaks havoc once it descends. Its demands are not of this world; they belong to the angels. The Word therefore comes to naught once it enters the human sphere, since there is no one to receive it. All have died before the Word is able to pronounce its second word. How then can it delight the living soul?
The answer is: sweetness. It has to have grace and therefore must be put to music. The problem with the Word is that it carries the possibility of literal-mindedness (Abraham Joshua Heschel) and takes the word for what it is, robbing it of its inner spiritual meaning. The language of faith employs only a few words in its own spirit. Most of its terms are borrowed from the world in which the Word creates physical images in the mind of man. But the Divine Word needs to be heard, not seen. To hear is to perceive what is beyond the utterance of the mouth. To live with the Word is to discover the ineffable and act on it through the direction of the Law. The mitzvot are founded on the appreciation of the unimaginable, but they become poison when performed only for the sake of the deed.
Rabbi Shefatia said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “If one reads the Torah without a melody, or repeats the Mishna without a tune, of him Scripture says [Ezekiel 20:25]: ‘So, too, I gave them statutes that were not good and laws by which they could not live’ [Megila 32a].”
Death refers also to those who do mitzvot in an improper manner. The full impact of Torah and mitzvot comes only when, while performing them, one realizes their great value and gives them their proper due honor.
The function of music is to connect the Word with Heaven. It is not so much the music that man plays on an instrument or sings, but the music of his soul, which is externalized through the use of an instrument or song. It leads man to the edge of the infinite and allows him to gaze, just for a few moments, into the Other. Music is the art of word exegesis. While a word on its own is dead, it is resurrected when touched by music. Music is the refutation of human finality. As such, it is the sweetness that God added to His Word when the Word alone was wreaking havoc. It is able to revive man when he dies as he is confronted with the bare Word at Sinai. Life without music is death – poignantly bitter when one realizes that one has never really lived.
There is little meaning in living by Halacha if one does not hear its grace. It is not a life of halachic observance that we need, but a life of halachic living. Observance does not propel man to a level of existence where he realizes that there is more to life than the mind can grasp.
Jewish education has often been founded on the Word before it turned to God to be sweetened. As a result, there are many casualties and a large part of our nation has been paralyzed.
It is the great task of Jewish educators and thinkers to send the Word back to God and ask Him to teach them how to sweeten it.
The author is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. A lecturer and the author of 13 books, he is known for his fearless and controversial insights into Judaism. To receive his weekly Thoughts to Ponder, see