The Music of the Spheres: Shirah and Meaning
The hills are alive With the sound of music With songs they have sung For a thousand years
The hills fill my heart With the sound of music My heart wants to sing ev'ry song it hears
- Oscar Hammerstein II
Call it history. Call it tradition. Call it mystery. Whatever it is called, the ancient Greeks teach that sometime in the 5th century B.C.E., Pythagoras was thoughtfully playing about with a piece of cord. He plucked the cord. A sound emanated. He took half the length and plucked again. Another sound, one higher in tone but in accord with the first. And like that, he had discovered the octave.
With further experimentation that came upon a mathematical ratio that allowed sounds to be “pleasing” to the ear, Pythagoras believed he had found the numerical secret that was the key to the universe.
Aristotle told that the followers of Pythagoras, “supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.” Literally. They believed that the heavenly spheres themselves, in their rotations through the sky produced music, music so perfect that man’s attempts could only be weak approximations. Still music, in this view, was our participation in the intrinsic harmony of the universe. In short, music was an entryway to the soul.
The Greeks in their “insight” and their teaching were, as usual, far behind the Jews.
We have always held that each element in creation is part of a magnificent symphony, not just the orbs in the heavens but also each of us. This is the power of shirah.
Shirah rises above the scope of both sichah (conversation) and zimrah (praise). Each of these has its honored place in life’s experience. Sichah calls upon the intellect, reflecting that which is most thoughtful about human experience. Zimrah adds another layer of content, as if another layer of sound is added to the music.
Unlike the intellectual experience of sichah, zimrah demands more nuance, more engagement. It brings one’s kishkes into play. Zimrah demands emotion and not just intellect. To sing Shabbat zemirot is to engage in so much more than our minds; it calls forth our hearts and hopes as well. In zimrah, both halachah and agadah are brought into harmony; the body and soul of Shabbat is made one.
Our lives and experience are enriched by our participation in the intellectual and the emotional. But neither of these alone, or even in tandem, can make life truly meaningful; to really, as the Greeks would have it, open the doorway to the soul. For that, we need shirah.
Shira is the thing itself; it is the harmony underlying the power and greatness and beauty of creation.
Dovid Hamelech, great poet that he was, referred to Torah as zimrah. For this, he was reprimanded. Referring to Torah as zimrah diminishes it. Torah is not zimrah. It is the perfect shirah because it mirrors the whole of human experience; it encompasses the wholeness of experience, the wholeness of creation.
It is this wholeness of experience that saw Israel recite shirah on the yam. There, on the distant shore of the sea, the newly freed nation spoke not merely of temporal triumphs, not merely of the “present.” Az yashir… Then they “will” sing. Their “song” was about more than the courage and accomplishments of the moment; their spontaneous shirah embraced the experience of their brutal past even as it proclaimed a vision of their grand future. Their shirah transcended time. As Rashi teaches, Az (then) when they saw the miracle, the thought entered their hearts to sing a shirah.
Their shirah called forth visions of the coming conquest of the promised land, and even of building a holy Temple in the far distant prophetic future, reaching its crescendo as it envisioned the perfect Messianic society when Hashem shall reign forever.
Shira is timeless. It reflects all that was, is and will be.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks captures the power of music in Judaism when he writes, “Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. There is something about melody that intimates a reality beyond our grasp… Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.
“Music is central to the Judaic experience. We do not pray; we daven, meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah; instead we chant the weekly portion, each word with its own cantillation. Even rabbinical texts are never merely studied; we chant them with the sing-song known to all students of Talmud. Each time and text has its specific melodies. The same prayer may be sung to half-a-dozen different tunes depending on whether it is part of the morning, afternoon or evening service, and whether the day is a weekday, a Sabbath, a festival or one of the High Holy Days. There are different cantillations for biblical readings, depending on whether the text comes from the Mosaic books, the prophetic literature, or the Ketuvim. Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic tonality.”
It is, in his estimation, the fulfillment of the commandments.
Shirah is complete. It is whole. It captures the totality of experience. When we sing in harmony with creation and the universe, we understand that our voices cannot sing praise without encompassing pain and suffering. Our shirah is a realization that geulah – redemption – is not an independent condition. It is not a by-product or a fortunate outcome. It is, in fact, a direct consequence of galut. There can be no geulah without galut.
There is a direct connection to when Moshe exclaimed, Me’az chatati, yesterday I angrily declared my anguish over the galut and enslavement and therefore today I openly declare my gratitude and song for the redemption – az yashir.
Perhaps then this is the meaning of the Talmud’s statement that, “Whoever says shirah in this world merits to say shirah in the world to come.”
True shirah is the culmination of a complete, universal perspective. It relies not only on today’s joy, but also yesterday’s pain and tomorrow’s glory. It is because I was a child “only yesterday” that today I can laugh, rejoice and dance, knowing too that tomorrow I am grown, mature and responsible.
In human experience, shirah opens the door to meaningful existence; it is an open door to the soul. Our Song at the Sea, Az yashir, is the most fundamental expression of that truth. Chazal declare that “from the inception of the world’s creation until Israel stood at the sea, we do not find anyone who has uttered shirah to God, but Israel. He created Adam and he did not utter shirah ….”
Can it really be so that no creature truly sang until then? Doesn’t the Midrash extol Adam for reciting Lechu neranena?Likewise, when Adam repented for his sin, the Midrash tells us that he sang Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat. Why do Chazal state that until the parting of the sea no shirah was ever truly uttered?
There is song and then there is song. We know this from our own experience. We hear “music” constantly, from melodies that accompany ads for toothpaste to slickly produced songs of love or heartbreak on the radio. These employ the Pythagorean ratio of harmony, but they are not shirah. When Chazal say that no creature truly sang until the Sea, it is because Chazal speak of genuine shirah. When Adam asked forgiveness for his sin, his focus was on the “now,” on his immediate need of forgiveness, not on the scope of his life and experience that had brought him to his sin – or on the future that still lay ahead.
Shirah necessitates a recognition of the present state of salvation and geulah, but with an equal cognizance that yesterday’s pain, anxiety and galut were also part of God’s grand scheme. Such a shirah was first uttered by Israel at the sea.
The Sfat Emet questions the well-known postulate that Parashat Haazinu is referred to as shirah. After all there are many chastising and punishment-filled statements throughout the parasha!
Shirah transcends time. It requires the full perspective not only for today’s joy but also yesterday’s pains. Awareness of hardship and the joy, galut and geulah, creates fullness and harmony in one’s life; it teaches that such things “emanated from God . . . let us rejoice and be glad on it.”
Genuine faith encompasses the belief that He Who takes us into galut will also lead us geulah. Kohelet (7:14) describes God as having, “made even the one as well as the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.” God’s plan was not to make human life an unbroken spell of calamity – or of joy. Both are necessary parts of life and experience; in both we find evidence of His wisdom.