One of the most beautiful and uplifting aspects of Jewish prayer, for this rabbi at least, is a communal song. The songs and prayers we sing together are a highlight of my own Jewish spiritual path. And my spirit soars especially when not led or guided by a cantor or a choir. Just plain old human voices together as one-this is what gets me. I appreciate professional and amateur musicians and choirs and the role they play in the world of art and music but more and more I believe that the purpose of communal worship is for us to raise all of our voices in song. The congregation is the choir. We always were the choir.
Daniel Levitin, a professor at McGill University, writes that "Still today you can go to hunter-gatherer societies, pre-industrial tribes, and everybody sings, everybody dances.” Everybody. Around 500 hundred years ago, Levitin teaches, in many Western societies music became professionalized and the first concert halls were built. There was a distinct move away from communal singing. According to Levitin, “The audience was meant to sit there with their hands politely folded in their laps and their mouths shut. Singing was now something that specialists did, while others watched. It became an exclusionary act, rather than a communal one.”
In our post-pandemic reality, many feel disconnected and have lost the bonds of community. Being in a room with other people simply breathing, let alone singing, strikes fear in the hearts of many. And yet the loneliness and alienation many feel in our society, our true mental health crisis, is in many ways more of a threat to our well-being than the virus itself now that we have a vaccination. Our vaccination for loneliness and detachment, cynicism, and alienation? Community. One of the great connectors and healers of human minds and hearts is communal ritual and especially communal song and dance. This is age-old wisdom. Ancient wisdom awakens modern humans from the slumber that is individualism and disconnect from the community.
My breathing changes after a few minutes of communal song. I close my eyes and get lost in the sound of all of us. My own voice disappears and becomes a part of the whole. And there is no conductor, no professional guiding us in what to do. We are praying. We are singing out our highest values and our collective aspirations for a world healed and at one. This is good for my soul. All of the months leading our prayers and songs on zoom all I could hear was my own voice in prayer. I was able to see the eye color of every member of the community but I couldn't hear their voices and my voice came together as one. I love that I was able to know the faces of my community members. But I missed us singing together. And now that we are back together in person I know that the communal singing I will experience every Shabbat is one of the forces that keep my life force going. Communal singing: It is powerful and transformational.
In our Torah portion this week, Beshalach, Miriam leads the woman and all the people in song and dance to celebrate the Exodus. It is clear that song and dance were vital to the community because it seems all the women had timbrels ready to go as soon as they crossed over. They kept tambourines close at hand just in case a celebration broke out. Timbrels, tambourines, or tof in Hebrew were the percussion instrument of choice for ancient Israel. The rhythm carried the Israelites toward the promised land. There was poetry and song but there was also a rhythm to enliven their footsteps.
A timbral, voices, clapping, pounding heels-this is all
we need to lift our spirits. No amplification. No fancy song sheets. No orchestra. We have everything we need right in our hands and in our throats and in our personal rhythms we bring to the group. Rhythms outside of us move us together but we also have rhythm in our basic functioning as humans. It is in our brains. Katie Bain, in Insomniac Magazine, writes, “ Your brain is in fact naturally rhythmic, even when you’re not listening to music, and it fires at rhythms that vary depending on what you’re doing. For example, when you’re thinking with major focus, your brain fires quick, rhythmic electrical pulses called gamma waves. When you’re relaxed, it fires the slower alpha waves. It is these rhythms that allow you to function the way you do.” This means our brains also fire differently when we sing and pray together, depending on our experience. Imagine a communal song that brings together not just our voices, not just the rhythm of our claps or stomps, not just our heartbeats but also the rhythm of our brains firing. That is a deep unification that humans are capable of experiencing. We are capable of getting outside of our heads, outside of ourselves, outside of our limited nature and we are capable of connecting to the song beyond all songs: the Divine.
We are hardwired for rhythm, for a song, for community. All of these are essential to health and vitality in life. If you have not had the opportunity to sing in a community of late, let this Shabbat be an opportunity to reconnect with the song of our people. And let the rhythm move you, carry you, transport you, and connect you to the rhythm of life.