And when Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said unto Moses, “there is a noise of war in the camp.” And [Moses replied], “it is not the sound of victory, nor the sound of defeat. It is the sound of singing that I hear…” (Exodus 33:18)
Each year ~ on the holiday festival of Shavuot ~ we commemorate the ‘giving of the Torah’ on Mt. Sinai. In the sanctuary, the traditional Torah reading includes the section of the Ten Commandments; and there are special prayers that recall the festival, Israel, and the gift of the Torah (“matan Torah”).
What is generally omitted from the liturgy is the chapter of our people during the 40 days that Moses had climbed up on Mt. Sinai. He had ascended beyond any communication with the people he had led out of Egypt and into the Sinai desert… And the Sinai was indeed a barren wasteland, a place foreign, inhospitable, and most certainly dangerous.
According to the Biblical text, it was during this time that we fashioned a “golden calf” ~ and much has been written since then about the calf itself: who built it, what it looked like, how much gold was necessary to form it, etc. But much less has been written about the singing that Moses heard as he descended the mountain. In our distress, with our leader vanished and our fears increased, what kind of music was it that we were singing? From what we know in general about music today, the songs we most often sing are those that best reflect our experiences and the feelings that accompany what we do. From the songs of praise and community in our houses of worship, to secular songs of love and loss; from songs of defiance and the protest of war, to songs of yearning and the hope for peace ~ our best music is the honest expression of our who we are. Both the melodies and the lyrics ~ like poetry ~ speak of our times, of our anxieties and our joys, of our dreams and our aspirations. The song we offered at the base of Mt. Sinai most likely arose from the intense fears and fragile hopes that we felt in those historic moments.
Naomi Shemer (“Jerusalem of Gold”) knew the value of song as an expression of our hopes when she paraphrased the verse from the book of Exodus in her song “May it Be.” Written shortly after the Yom Kippur War, her lyrics ask, “What is that sound that I hear? The cry of the shofar, the sound of the drums; all that we ask for ~ may it be” [inspired by Exodus 33]. And that is the way it has always been. From the foot of Mt. Sinai to the streets of our cities today, our composers and lyricists are the artists who have given us this most natural means of expression in song.
We, the Temple Emanu-el Chorale, so appreciate our musical tradition and heritage, and from time to time we have been honored to bring you some of this music. In a previous appearance on Yom Kippur morning, we sang some of the newest melodies composed for the ancient, yet familiar, words of the synagogue liturgy. For another performance, we prepared some of the best secular music written by Jewish composers and lyricists.
We look forward to seeing you at any of our future performances. Best wishes during this season.