When joining synagogues around the world for prayer, one is often confronted with a lack of religious enthusiasm. In many synagogues, services are heavy and often a little depressing. It is not always the lack of concentration by the worshippers which makes synagogue services unattractive but the absence of song and smile. It is true that prayer is a most serious undertaking, yet our sages have often emphasized the fact that the opportunity to speak to the Lord of Universe is a great privilege which should bring great happiness to man. After all, for men, made of flesh and bones, to converse with their Maker is something which has no logical basis. Who is man to speak to the King of Kings? This is even more true when one contemplates the fact that man has the opportunity to praise God with hymns and laudations. As the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, once said, “Wer einen lobt, stellt sich ihm gleich.” (He who praises another person places himself on the other’s level.)
And, as Aristotle, probably referring to Plato, said, “Everyone may criticize him, but who is permitted to praise him?”
Most interesting is the fact that one of the ways we are able to identify the Mashiach is his capacity and willingness to sing. In the tractate Sanhedrin (94a), Bar Kapara states that God intended to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Mashiach, i.e. the ultimate redeemer of mankind, but ultimately did not.
Chizkiyahu is known as one of the most righteous men the Jewish people have ever seen. He introduced most important religious reforms and was a man of outstanding devotion, committed to the highest level of morality. In fact, he was so successful in his attempt to improve Jewish education that there was “no boy or girl, no man or even woman in the land who was not versed in the religious laws of tahara and tuma, purity or impurity!” (ibid.)
Still, King Chizkiyahu was not even able to educate his own son King Menashe in “the fear of God.” The latter is known for his wickedness, and commentators observe that this was due to the fact that his righteous father did not know how to sing and was therefore not able to inspire him. We can be sure that Menashe was well educated in Jewish learning but all such learning stayed academic and frigid, because the warmth of a song did not accompany it.
Most telling is the fact that the sages inform us that King Chizkiyahu did not even sing after he experienced a great miracle which saved Israel from the hands of the wicked Sancherib, the Assyrian king. (ibid.)
Not being able to sing is considered by our sages as a serious and irreparable weakness which invalidates one from being the Mashiach. Indeed we find that all of Kings Chizkiyahu’s efforts to encourage Jewish learning came to an end after he passed away. There is no future to Jewish learning and Judaism without a song and a smile.
This, however, needs some clarification. What is there in a song which is not found in a spoken word which makes it so crucial to the Jewish Tradition?
It may be worthwhile to quote a highly unusual statement by the great rationalist thinker, Maimonides. Discussing human reason and prophecy he writes,
“I say that there is a limit to human reason, and as long as the soul resides within the body, it cannot grasp what is above nature, for nothing that is immersed in nature can see above it. Reason is limited to the sphere of nature and is unable to understand what is above its limits…Know that there is a level of knowledge which is higher than all philosophy, namely prophecy. Prophecy is a different source and category of knowledge. Proof and examination are inapplicable to it. If prophecy is genuine then it cannot depend on the validation of reason…Our faith is based on the principle that the words of Moshe are prophecy and therefore beyond the domain of speculation, validation, argument or proof. Reason is inherently unable to pass judgement in the area from which prophecy originates. It would be like trying to put all the water in the world into a little cup.” (Maimonides. Kobetz Teshuboth HaRambam We-iggerotav, letter to Rabbi Chisdai, 11, pp. 23a-23b, ed. Lichtenberg, Leipzig, 1859.)
Music is raising the spoken word to a level which touches on prophecy. It gives it a taste of that which is beyond and transforms it into something untouchable. Just as there is no way to demonstrate the beauty of music to a man who is deaf, so there is no way to explain the difference between a spoken word and one which is sung unless one sings. It lifts man out of the mundane and gives him a feeling of the imponderable, which is the entrance to joy.
Some men go on a hunger strike in the prison of their minds, starving for God, and it is song which will free them.
Prayer is our answer to the inconceivable surprise of living, Avraham Yehoshua Heshel once said. To sing is to know how to stand still and dwell upon a word. While this is even true for a song of the individual, it becomes more apparent when a group of human beings joins in communal song.
When our sages inform us that no one is able to become the Mashiach unless he is able and willing to sing, it should be a message to all who want to be religious that song should be a most important part of their prayers and lives. We are deeply indebted to Sephardic tradition, Chassidism and people like Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z.l., who have put song in the center of modern Jewish life. It is time that rabbis of synagogues give it their full attention, teaching their followers to surprise themselves at what their souls are able to achieve. It is prayer in song which makes that possible.