“Rabbi Azarya and Rabbi Acha stated in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘When the Israelites heard the word “I” ,(the first word of “I am the Lord your God” of the Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai, their souls departed from them, as it states, “If we hear the Voice any longer… [we shall die] (Devarim 5:22),” and it also states, “My soul failed me when He spoke (Shir HaShirim 5:6).”
Then the Word returned 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 that God gave to Israel restored their souls to them, as it states, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Tehillim 19:8).’”
(Shir HaShirim Rabba 6:3)
It may 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. 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, the divine message, is able to proceed to even its second word. How, then, is this divine Word such that it becomes a delight to the living soul?
The answer is sweetness. The Word must 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) that will take the word for what it is and rob 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 to be seen.
To truly 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 Mitzvot, God’s commandments, 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 Yochanan: ‘If one reads the Torah without a melody, or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him Scripture states, “So too, I gave them also statutes that were not good (Yechezkel 20:25).”
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 that is expressed by means of an instrument or a song. It leads man to the edge of the infinite and allows him to gaze, if only for a few moments, into the Other. Music is the art of 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 God added to His Word when the Word alone was creating havoc. Thus it is able to resurrect the human being when he or she 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. We do not require a life of Halachic observance, but a life of Halachic living. Observance does not propel man to a level of existence where the mind will appreciate that there is more to life than the mind can grasp.
Jewish education has often been founded on the initial Word before it had returned to God to be “sweetened.” As such, Jewish education has 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 implore Him to teach them how to sweeten it.
(1) Avraham Joshua Heschel, “God in Search of Man,” p. 178.