Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When at Mt. Sinai the Israelites heard the word “I” (the first word of “I am the Lord your God” in the “Ten Words”), their souls left them, as it says, “If we hear the Voice….any longer, we shall die,”(Devarim 5:22), and it is also written, “My soul failed me when He spoke” (Shir Hashirim 5:6). Then the Word turned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, “Lord of the Universe, You are life and Your Torah is life, yet You have sent me to the dead! for they are all dead!” Thereupon, the Holy One blessed be He sweetened the Word for them….Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: The Torah, which God gave to Israel, restored their souls to them, as it says, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.” (Tehillim, 19:8)
It may perhaps be argued that this Midrash, like no other text, summarizes the essence of Judaism and its dialectic nature. The tension between the Law and the near hopelessness of man to live by it, survive it and simultaneously obey it with great fervor is at the very core of Judaism’s complexity.
The divine Word is deadly and causes paralysis. The Word, wrought by fire in the upper world, is unmanageable and causes havoc once it descends. Its demands are not of this world; they belong to the angels. The Word therefore comes to naught once it enters the human sphere, since there is nobody to receive it. All have died before the Word is able to pronounce its second word. How then is it a Word that can delight the living soul?
The answer is sweetness. It has to have grace and therefore must be put to music. The problem with the Word is that it carries the possibility of literal–mindedness (1). It takes the Word for what it is and robs it of its inner spiritual meaning. The language of faith employs only a few words in its own spirit. Most of its terms are borrowed from the world in which the Word creates physical images in the mind of man. But the divine Word needs to be heard and not seen. To hear is to perceive the sound of what is beyond the utterance of the mouth. To live with the Word is to discover the ineffable and to act on it through the direction of the Law. The mitzvoth are founded on the appreciation of the unimaginable, but they become poison when done only for the sake of the deed.
Rabbi Shefatya said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “If one reads the Torah without a melody, or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him Scripture says, “Did I give them statutes that are not good?” (Yechezkel 20:25) (2)
The function of music is to connect the Word with Heaven. It is not so much the music that man plays on an instrument, or sings, but the music of his soul which is externalized through the use of an instrument or a song. It leads man to the edge of the infinite and allows him to gaze, just for a few moments, into the Other. Music is the art of word exegesis. While a word on its own is dead, it is resurrected when touched by music. Music is the refutation of human finality and, as such, the sweetness that God added to His Word when the Word alone was creating havoc. It is able to revive man when he is confronted with the bare Word at Sinai and dies. Life without music is death – poignantly bitter when one realizes that one has never really lived.
There is little meaning in living by Halacha if one does not hear its grace. It is a not a life of Halachic observance that we need, but a life of Halachic living. Observance does not propel man to a level of existence where he realizes that there is more to life than the mind can grasp.
Jewish education has often been founded on the Word before it turned to God to be sweetened. As a result, there are many casualties and a large part of our nation is paralyzed.
It is the great task of Jewish educators and thinkers to send the Word back to God and ask Him to teach them how to sweeten it.
(1) Avraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. p. 178.
(2) Meggilah 32a