What is the difference between hitting random notes on a piano and creating what we call music? When those notes are played in the right order and with the right timing, the product is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. That transcendent feeling, which pulls us out of our immediate world of focus and transports us to another dimension, is a spiritual experience.
Positive psychology describes this as entering into the state of flow – perhaps more commonly known as “being in the zone”. This is when we are fully immersed in the process of whichever activity we are engaged in, leaving us not only happy but energised.
Music has the power to restore the soul. It reminds us that the temporal finitudes which comprise most of our experiences are not the totality of our existence.
Moses, the greatest Jewish leader that ever lived, sang two songs to the Jewish people during his time as leader. The first was on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, the fledgling Jewish nation had escaped their slavery in Egypt though a series of miraculous events culminating in them journeying into the desert until they arrived at the Sea of Reeds, trapped on one side by the water and the other by the pursuing Egyptian army. The sea split and they walked through to the other side – and when the Egyptians followed suit, they were drowned. A narrow escape, a final sigh of relief. Moses and the people, in recognition of the miraculous nature of their redemption, uttered a song of praise.
The second song Moses sings to the people is found in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, at the very end of Moses’ life. The circumstances surrounding this song are far from what they were at the Sea of Reeds and it follows a series of rebukes by Moses to the people, for they have left the ways of God. The Jewish people, now worn-out from decades of wandering in the desert, beset by mistake after mistake, complaint after complaint, have reached the end of their allotted time to reflect on the past, and enter into the final phase of their redemption: entering the Land of Israel. But this time, they will have to do it without their fearless leader, Moses, who before blessing each and every tribe delineating their strengths (and sometimes their weaknesses), breaks into his last song before his death.
Give ear, O you heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O Earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass. Because I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He. (Deuteronomy 32:1-4)
These words are made more powerful with the thought that during his final days, when Moses knows he will not merit to enter the land he has led his people to, he can still describe God as a God of justice and truth.
The first song Moses taught the people was to sing in times of praise, and rejoice over the happiest of occasions. Before his death, he taught the people another profound lesson. He sang to God in a time of crisis.
Song and music denotes connecting to a higher part of ourselves. When Moses teaches the Jewish people that in a time of crisis one can still sing, he is teaching us that though it may be the circumstances are not ideal, I trust in God and His plan. And when we take into account what this meant for Moses personally, it makes the lesson that much more real.
That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people …For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)
In his final moments, Moses has the chance to gaze over the land that he will never get to set foot in. He can reflect with serenity at his achievements. Even though the people were not perfect, even though he didn’t get to take them the full distance – he got a taste of it – he got to see it and transport his mind to another dimension.
The year 5780 was a time of uncertainty, of loss, of despair – but we enter into the new year with a renewed sense of hope. Like Moses gazed over the land of his dreams, we too visualise a more beautiful year ahead.
- September 23rd 2020