D’Var Torah | January 23, 2015

The Real Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shabbat Shirah, B’Shallach I can’t sing. I’m a monotone. I’m tone deaf. No one in my family can sing. You don’t want to hear me, Cantor!

If I had a shekel for every time I heard one of the above comments from a congregant, a friend or a guest at my shabbat table … well, I’d have a lot of shekels!

Let me borrow a white lab coat from one of a host of neuro-scientists, medical researchers, psychologists and voice experts and say with their on-loan-authority: Most people are not tone deaf and are capable of singing reasonably well if given half a chance a little bit of training.

Most people who come to me with the above comment have some variation of the same story: Mrs. {enter-kindergarten-teacher’s-name-here} told me to ‘mouth the words’ whenever we would sing. I’ve never sung since.

As Grawmeyer Award winner neuroscientist James McGaugh explains, our brain is wired to remember those things that have an emotional impact. It’s a shame that such comments affect us so negatively and are remembered so well. Music itself is an incredibly effective method for anchoring memories. Other scientists have noted the experience of making music helps connect different parts of the brain in ways that nothing else does. Many sufferers of Alzheimer’s seem to remember music for longer than even the names of their closest relatives.

Scholars who understand Biblical texts as literary expressions from different eras tend to place both the Song of Moses and the Song of Deborah, which we will chant in the Torah and Haftarah respectively on Shabbat on January 31, in the very earliest strata of our sacred writings.

But even those in our community who are ‘Torah-True,’ believing that every word was written by Moses and dictated by God, might agree there’s nothing obvious about the Prince of Egypt being a singer or poet. After all, Moses describes himself as heavy of mouth and lips. Whether Moses had an actual physical defect or was simply not psychologically prepared for verbal combat, we should be somewhat surprised that Moses reacts to the great escape at the Sea of Reeds with song. Regardless of the royal kindergarten tutor assigned to Moses in Pharaoh’s palace, our beloved prophet and teacher seems to have overcome that hurdle.

So let this Shabbat be an opportunity for all of us to find a place to sing. If you’ve not been scarred by Mrs. Not-So-Pitch-Perfect, then join a choir. Singing in harmony with others builds community and creates beauty in the world, making sad times bearable and extending the experiences of joy in our hearts and souls.

If you’re not a likely contestant on The Voice, The X Factor or America’s Got Talent, find a congregation to sing with. Every congregation in town has communal singing in which individual voices can take part and not be exposed. Even synagogues that pray primarily in Hebrew often include transliteration in their prayer books.

Remember, I’m still wearing the borrowed lab coat: Many scientists have found that singing is GOOD for you. Not just emotionally but physically.
Now, let me take off the lab coat and don the Cantor’s Kippah.

This Sabbath of Song, January 30 and 31, in Louisville is a particularly appropriate one to visit your congregation. In four of our shuls, members of the Jewish a cappella groups from Indiana University and Washington University – Hooshir and Staam – will be visiting Friday night or Saturday morning services and then join in a concert at AJ on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.

You’ll even be given an opportunity to sing.
I hope you do.
Yes, you can, and it’s good for you.
Shabbat Shalom.

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Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, January 23 at 5:37 p.m., January 30 at 5:45 p.m., February 6 at 5:52 p.m., Februsry 13 at 6 p.m., February 20 at 6:08 p.m., and February 27 at 6:15 p.m.

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Editor’s note: Cantor David Lipp, the cantor of Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.

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