Sign In Forgot Password

01/31/2021 11:39:41 AM

Jan31

Cantor Hinda Eisen Labovitz has proudly served Ohr Kodesh as cantor and director of its educational programs since 2014. She has enjoyed opportunities to teach periodically from the pulpit and in classroom settings throughout her tenure at Ohr Kodesh. This blog is a record of some of Cantor Labovitz's sermons and lectures.

Please feel free to reach out to Cantor Labovitz by email or set a meeting by clicking here.

Shabbat Shirah 5781/2021 - Many Words for Music

01/31/2021 09:34:02 AM

Jan31

Cantor Labovitz

YishtabachIn what has since become a cultural cliché, 19th century anthropologist Franz Boaz once observed that the languages of the native peoples who live in the area of Alaska and the Northwest Territories contain an unusually large number of words for “Snow.” I have been fascinated by this fact for some time.

When a language has so many words to describe one concept, you know that this thing is sacred in that culture, that that thing is so well-loved that it has been studied over and over, that it has been observed so thoroughly that the culture requires nuance to describe subtle details and differences about that thing.

Biblical and liturgical Hebrew, particularly once we arrive at Psalms, has a robust vocabulary that exists in a scatterplot on the three intersecting planes of music, praise, and joy.       

This week, by happenstance, I encountered Psalm 66 in the course of weekly study as I’ve been investigating the book of Psalms in order with my chavruta, my regular study partner. I’ve paid little attention to Psalm 66 until this point, and I’ll say that it felt serendipitous to find it this week. Sometimes, I confess, I read a text and feel like it’s waiting for me to find it or notice it at the right moment.

If you have a book of Psalms at the ready, you’re welcome to read along, but you won’t find this one in the siddur, unless you’re looking at Seligmann Baer’s Siddur Avodas Yisroel published in Rödelheim, Germany in 1868, where Psalm 66 is designated as the Psalm for the second day of Pesach / Passover and second day of Sukkot in the places outside of the land of Israel where those days are observed as holy days. That tradition does not seem to have been preserved in any modern siddurim.

Psalm 66’s text is relevant to this week for two reasons: First, it makes reference to the monumental event of this week’s parasha, the moment God split the Reed Sea, and it is littered with the vocabulary I described earlier, which exists on that three-dimensional axis of music, praise, and joy.

Psalm 66 is introduced with the three words,

לַ֭מְנַצֵּחַ שִׁ֣יר מִזְמ֑וֹר

To the lead player/the conductor, a song (shir), a psalm (mizmor).

We open here with a musical instruction. In Psalms, superscriptions referring to music are often dismissed by scholars as later additions, perhaps stage directions to the director and the players of the Temple’s Levitical orchestra.

Today we call Shabbat Shirah which we conventionally translate as “the Shabbat of Song,” and in its honor we dedicate ourselves to discussing music. I should note here that, unlike in modern Hebrew wherein a Shir is most commonly translated as song, in biblical Hebrew Shir typically simply means “poem, though the verb form means to sing. Thus, the so-called “Song of the Sea” should perhaps be titled the “Poem of the Sea.However, the first words of that poem are as follows, As Yashir Moshe uV’nei Yisrael, thus Moses and the People of Israel sang – or more accurately, would ultimately sing, or chant, this poem, upon their exodus from Egypt through the dry land amidst the Reed Sea.

Back to

שִׁ֣יר מִזְמ֑וֹר

a song (shir), a psalm (mizmor).

Most psalms, if they have such an instruction, contain only one of these words, shir or mizmor, or another musical indicator. Here, we have a compound. Shir and Mizmor. The 12th-century European commentator Ibn Ezra notes that many Psalms are also ascribed to individuals, like Mizmor LeDavid, a Psalm of David, and in noticing that this psalm is not ascribed to any author or leader in particular, Ibn Ezra posits that this Psalm may have been composed by or for a meshorer, a singer, in the Levitical choir, or for universalistic use.

Mizmor, you might hear in the similar root, zemer, like a Shabbat table song, or zimrah, as in P’sukei D’Zimrah, the first service of each day which we also sometimes translate as “Verses of Song.”           

But beyond it’s musical connotation, the root Zayin-Mem-Reysh has additional connotations of strength and cutting down. Our poem in this week’s parasha contains the famous words ozi veZimrat YaH, conventionally understood, the Lord is my Strength and Deliverance – we don’t understand this to mean that the God is my Strength and Song, as fitting as that may be (and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov interpreted that way). And the same root indicates cutting down, as in Parashat Behar, at the end of Leviticus with the instructions about Shmitta, the sabbatical year, sheish shanim tizmor karmekha – you may prune your vineyards six out of each seven years. Perhaps we can understand the strength and the cutting in the context of our word, mizmor, as an emotional breaking down of barriers through music and through singing, one of the key goals of our beginning the service that way in P’sukei D’Zimrah.

The first verse of the Psalm continues,

הָרִ֥יעוּ לֵ֝אלֹהִים כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Hariu, related to the word Teru’ah, the rapid series of blasts heard from the Shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, signals a loud sound. Shout out to the Lord, all the earth, we translate. Robert Alter on this phrase comments, “This initial imperative to acclaim God signals the beginning of a Thanksgiving psalm.”

Verse 2,

זַמְּר֥וּ כְבֽוֹד־שְׁמ֑וֹ שִׂ֥ימוּ כָ֝ב֗וֹד תְּהִלָּתֽוֹ׃

sing the glory of God’s name, make glorious God’s praise.

Tehilato, related to the word tehillim, the Hebrew title of the Book of Psalms, also related to Hallel, the series of Psalms we add to praise God on particularly joyous holidays.

Verse 4,

כָּל־הָאָ֤רֶץ ׀ יִשְׁתַּחֲו֣וּ לְ֭ךָ וִֽיזַמְּרוּ־לָ֑ךְ יְזַמְּר֖וּ שִׁמְךָ֣ סֶֽלָה׃

all the earth bows to You, and sings hymns (viyzam’ru) to You; all sing hymns (yezam’ru) to Your name.” Selah.

Verse 5,

לְכ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ מִפְעֲל֣וֹת אֱלֹהִ֑ים נוֹרָ֥א עֲ֝לִילָ֗ה עַל־בְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃

Come and see the works of God, who is held in awe by human people.

I want you in this verse to hear the reference to God as nora alilah, in this translation offered as “held in awe,” later picked up by the 12th century Sephardic liturgical poet Moses Ibn Ezra in his piyyut entitled El Nora Alilah, which we use to introduce our Ne’ilah service.

But as we’re singing to God, praising God, what is it that we’re singing about? Verse 6,

הָ֤פַךְ יָ֨ם ׀ לְֽיַבָּשָׁ֗ה בַּ֭נָּהָר יַֽעַבְר֣וּ בְרָ֑גֶל שָׁ֝֗ם נִשְׂמְחָה־בּֽוֹ׃

God turned the sea into dry land; they were able to cross the river on foot; we therefore rejoice (nismechah, be happy, as in chag sameach) in God.

בָּרְכ֖וּ עַמִּ֥ים ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְ֝הַשְׁמִ֗יעוּ ק֣וֹל תְּהִלָּתֽוֹ׃

O peoples (we’re invited), bless our God, celebrate God’s praises;

Barekhu – here’s another way to praise/bless/direct attention toward God. The Hebrew “Barekhu,” or “Barukh,” blessed, as we begin each blessing we say, is often associated with a bending of the knee as in the Amidah, related to the word birkayim meaning knees, though it is used as another praiseworthy way to extol God’s virtues. Here it appears in parallel with “Hishmi’u,” coming from the same root as “Shema,” to make heard one’s voice in praise of God – that is, tehilato. There’s that word again.

The Psalmist’s work is bookended with directives to gather round:

Verse 5 we read already,

לְכ֣וּ וּ֭רְאוּ מִפְעֲל֣וֹת אֱלֹהִ֑ים נוֹרָ֥א עֲ֝לִילָ֗ה עַל־בְּנֵ֥י אָדָֽם׃

Come and see the works of God, who held in awe by humans,

Now the text becomes personal after all those moments of praise, in verse 16:

לְכֽוּ־שִׁמְע֣וּ וַ֭אֲסַפְּרָה כָּל־יִרְאֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עָשָׂ֣ה לְנַפְשִֽׁי׃

Come and hear, and let me tell you, all God-fearing individuals, what God has done for me. Me, personally.

Psalm 66 gives us a window into one part of the vocabulary of praise, but the additional words on our scatterplot are littered throughout our siddur, particularly at the conclusion of P’sukei D’Zimrah and the first set of blessings preceding the Shema each morning. Shir, Zemer, Hallel, Barukh. In the context of our siddur we also hear verbs stemming from the words ne’imah, a melody; leranen, somewhere between music and joy; lehodot, to thank, leshabeiach, to praise, lehadeir, to beautify, leromeim, to lift up one’s voice, likro, to call out – some of these are in other verses of Psalm 66 I didn’t read to you. Hopefully you recognize many of these Hebrew roots as they appear in sequence also in recitations of the Kaddish.

But Psalm 66 ends in a startling theological statement, a statement I found resonant in thinking about prayer. Verses 17-20:

אֵלָ֥יו פִּֽי־קָרָ֑אתִי וְ֝רוֹמַ֗ם תַּ֣חַת לְשׁוֹנִֽי׃

I called aloud to God, glorification (romam) on my tongue.

אָ֭וֶן אִם־רָאִ֣יתִי בְלִבִּ֑י לֹ֖א יִשְׁמַ֣ע ׀ אֲדֹנָֽי׃

Had I an evil thought in my mind, the Lord would not have listened.

אָ֭כֵן שָׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִ֑ים הִ֝קְשִׁ֗יב בְּק֣וֹל תְּפִלָּתִֽי׃

But God did listen; heeded my prayer.

בָּר֥וּךְ אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־הֵסִ֘יר תְּפִלָּתִ֥י וְ֝חַסְדּ֗וֹ מֵאִתִּֽי׃

Blessed is God who has not turned away my prayer, or God’s faithful care from me.

What does it say that the Psalmist is ready to dismiss God, or initially thinks that God would be dismissive to the Psalmist, had the words of prayer been backed with negative or evil intentions? What power is there in calling out to God and suddenly understanding that, despite one’s sometimes-unfocused, sometimes impure intentions in prayer, God still listens? Blessed is God who has not turned away my prayer – my prayer, tefilah, not praise, but a supplication. This one, not about the object of that prayer, but about the intentions of its actor.

Each day in the middle of Modim, the gratitude section of the Amidah, we extol God for nisekha shebekhol yom imanu, Your miracles that are with us every day. In a week where we recall the grandiose acts that God has done to take us from bondage to freedom, splitting the sea and liberating the People of Israel, proving to them that God is masterful and grandiose. Let us remember that there are many ways to praise, to uplift, to supplicate, and let us meet our own needs, in relationship to God, in whatever way resonates today. Let us remember that as in music there are times for adagio, allegro, maestoso, and lento, there is blessing waiting for us in listening, in blessing, and in small miracles.

Fri, February 26 2021 14 Adar 5781