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Music In Our Prayers

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When the Jewish people crossed the Red Sea, successfully escaping the clutches of the Egyptians, Moses gathered the Israelites together and they sang the famous “Az Yashir.” Miriam, Moses’s sister, also assembled the women as they danced with tambourines and sang “shiru lahashem ki gao gaa sus vrochbo rama bayam” – let us sing to Hashem for he is great, horse and chariot he drowned in the sea.”

If only we could hear the beautiful melody that she and Moshe sang.

When the prophetess Deborah was successful in battle she composed a beautiful song. “VatasharD’vorah” – “and Deborah sang.” What song and what melody did she sing?

When God answered Chanah’s prayers and she gave birth to Shmuel, she sang a beautiful song of thanks and appreciation. Where is the haunting melody of thanks that she sang?

When King Saul was overcome with sadness and despair, David played on his harp to lift his spirits. I often wonder what beautiful and inspiring music David must have played to calm the troubled King Saul. Probably the same music he sang when he composed his Psalms.

King David is called the sweet singer of Israel. Our tradition states that he wrote the book of Psalms, in which he sings the praises of God and beseeches Him for help. These Psalms are used as a vehicle of prayer to God, asking Him for help in times of need or extolling Him in times of happiness.

How beautiful these songs must have been. If only we could hear King David, the singer of our people, chant those beautiful melodies.

When the prophet Elisha was asked to advise Jeroboam on whether to engage in war, Elisha asked to first play music. It was only after the music lifted his spirits and transformed his anger into happiness that he received the power to prophesize.

In the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, all the services were accompanied by music as the Levites sang haunting melodies and beautiful songs. They played instruments and chanted, all to create the mood of prayer and to reach heights that could not be attained if one just muttered the words.

Music is the conduit of the soul. To achieve a level of pure spirituality one must sing with happiness and gratitude.

Music and song have always been a vital part of our tradition and heritage. Creative Jews throughout the ages have composed expressive moving songs and melodies that offered our people comfort in bad times and unbridled ecstasy in good times. When we sing and infuse our prayers with song we are able to reach spiritual heights almost as if we are singing with God Himself.

Often when I pray and the chazzan chants a haunting melody, I close my eyes and it seems as if I am singing with the Shechina.

This is the power of song. It is the yearning of our soul to come closer to God. It is our neshama, our soul, searching to soar to higher religious levels. It is through music – this indescribable sound that emanates from our deepest feelings, this expression of our profoundest language of love and emotion – that we can attain the highest level of holiness.

While there are, of course, occasions when time spent on prayer must be shortened – for example, when a person has to go to work – there is no excuse, when one has time to pray, for failing to infuse prayer with music and earnestness

Nevertheless, many shuls across the country have formed minyanim on Shabbat – when there is plenty of time to daven properly – with the ultimate aim of finishing quickly. Friday night services, instead of being inspiring and meaningful, become a race on getting done as quickly as possible.

Prayer has become an unavoidable chore for many of our people, and additional singing an extension of this misery. Schools, too, are often more concerned with “covering the ground” and just davening, rather than attaching meaning by the inclusion of song.

Our children learn from our actions. They see how we behave and they mimic our actions. We set a poor example when our prayers are just “upgezugt” – said with little depth and meaning.

About the Author: Rabbi Mordechai Weiss has been involved in Jewish education for the past forty-six years, serving as principal of various Hebrew day schools. He has received awards for his innovative programs and was chosen to receive the coveted Outstanding Principal award from the National Association of Private Schools. He now resides in Israel and is available for speaking engagements. Contact him at ravmordechai@aol.com or 914-368-5149.

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