Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Jochanan said: When at mountain Sinai the Israelites heard the word “I , (the first word of “I am the Lord your God” of the “Ten Words” ) their souls left them, as it says, “If we hear the Voice….any longer, we shall die,”(Devarim 5:22) and also it is 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, Thou are life and Thy Torah is life, yet Thou has 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.” (Tehilim,19.8.)
It may perhaps be argued that the above Midrash, like no other text, reveals in a synopsis the essence of Judaism and its dialectic nature. The tension between the Law and the near hopelessness of man to live by it, to survive it and simultaneously to 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, once descended, is unmanageable and causes havoc. Its demands are not of this world and belong to the angels. And therefore the Word comes to naught once it enters the human condition since there is nobody to receive it. All have died before the Word is able to pronounce its second word. How than is it a Word which becomes a delight to the living soul?
The answer is sweetness. It has to have grace and therefore it must be put to music. The problem with the Word is that it carries the possibility of literal mindedness (1) and takes the word for what it is and robs it from 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 to be seen. To hear is to hear 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 directions of the Law. The Mitzvoth are founded on the appreciation of the unimaginable but become poison when they are only done for the sake of the deed.
Rabbi Shefatia said in the name of Rabbi Jochanan:” If one reads the Torah without a melody, or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him Scripture says, “So too, I gave them also statutes that were not good? (Yechezkel 20:25)( Meggilah 32a)
The function of music is to connect the Word with Heaven. It is not so much the music which 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 alone is dead, it is resurrected when it is touched by music. It is the refutation of human finality and as such it is the sweetness which God added to His Word when the Word alone was creating havoc. As such it is able to resurrect man when he is confronted with the bare Word at Sinai and dies. Because death is life without music and poignantly bitter when one realizes that one never really lived.
There is little meaning living by Halacha if one does not hear its grace. It is a not a life of Halachic observance which we need, but a life of Halachic living. Observance does not propel man to a level of existence where the mind 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 such it had many deadly casualties and paralyzed a large part of our nation.
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.