Rabbi Pinhas always spoke in high praise of music and song. Once he said: “Lord of the world, if I could sing, I should not let you remain above. I would harry you with my song until you came down and stayed with us.”
The psalm reads: “For singing to God is good.” Rabbi Elimelekh expounded this: “It is good if man can bring about that God sings with him.”
“Every shepherd has a special song, according to the grass and place he/she shepherds. Since the shepherd doesn’t always work in the same place, a song exists according to the grass in each place. Because every kind of grass has a song to say and because the shepherd will come to formulate song based on the song of the grass, the shepherd…will give energy back into the grass. And, then, the beasts will eat of it. Thus…, energy is given back to the grass and the beasts.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
“Tears open gates. Music demolishes walls.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
In commemoration of the end of this year’s SXSW Music Festival and Joshua Bell’s remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Houston this past weekend, I gathered four Hasidic sayings on song and music to see what they add to a music lover’s understanding. They’re amazing.
Before we examine them, I want to share a few lines I wrote about song and music from Bible readings that concerned the Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah:
“Song generally can bring emotion to the fore better than mere prose. It tends more deeply to express aspects of powerful experiences. We may taste victory and joy or loss and sadness. We may celebrate achievement, acknowledge important turns in our lives, or mourn defeat or death. The stuff of song can be love, bonding, hope, despair, etc. And the goal of song may be mostly expressive or intended to move others, by inspiring, cheering, soothing, wooing, and the like.”
I believe that what I wrote then was rational and true, but I marvel now at how prosaic it seems relative to the pulsating, poetic words of the Hasidic wisdom we’re considering here.
Let’s take a look at those sayings.
We must always remember that Hasidism presses us to sense God’s imminent presence and to feel joy that we are constantly near to God. So, of course, Hasidic rabbis would look for such reality in the experience of music.
We cherish music that can have the remarkable effect of encouraging God to be here with us and, even more, to sing with us. There are all kinds of aesthetic ways in which lovers of, and experts on, music describe the beauty of extraordinary music. But, for religious people, I like this Hasidic message. When, for example, violinist Joshua Bell reached the final movement in both playing and conducting the last movement of the concerto, I was so spiritually transported that I felt God’s presence and participation in the moment.
Have you ever had such a feeling in the course of great music?
Rabbi Nachman’s idea that each of us has a special song for each place in which we serve and that each such song reflects a reverberation between us and the place in which it’s conceived seems to me to be both profoundly true and exquisitely appealing.
But, he goes even further to the stunning thought that the song we create also brings energy to its place that feeds all who are nourished by it. This suggests that song is incredibly pervasive in its power and that the process by which it is created is regenerative of all that live in its environment.
I love that idea.
And if this idea is true, it’s certainly possible that Nachman’s extension of it is as well. If music can be born and give energy in such an exponentially replenishing way, it may also be able to attain a power that can demolish walls.
I particularly love that idea. Could music play a part in bringing us back together in our society? Perhaps. But I suppose that will only happen if it is a sort of music that is capable of doing so and that we are a people who would actually prefer common ground to preserving barriers.