On the first day of this past Rosh Hashanah, I visited Milwaukee while my wife, Layala, traveled back to the shul of her youth in Brooklyn. When we met up later in the day for Yom Tov lunch at our Harrisburg, Pennsylvania home, we had a number of experiences to share with each other.
At this point I probably should explain those last two sentences, so that members of our shul do not get the wrong idea about how we spent Rosh Hashanah.
While any of our senses can help us tap into our repositories of memory, we know the singular power music and song have in helping us return to earlier times and places. The closer a tune is to our hearts and emotions, the more likely it can send us down the proverbial memory lane.
As observant Jews, there are probably no melodies closer to our hearts than those that stir our emotions each year during our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers.
No two shuls use the same tunes for each of the many parts of the Yom Tov davening. As such, when one spends Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur in a new venue, one is bound to hear different melodies used in the course of the davening.
Since we have come to associate certain parts of the davening with the tunes that are familiar to us, hearing a chazzan or congregation sing a different melody can cause us to stop and think of the tune we normally associate with that point in the service. Recalling the familiar melody often transports us to a memorable Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur davening of another time and place.
My trip down memory lane this past Rosh Hashanah was triggered the first time we sang “HaYom HaRas Olam” (Today is the World’s Birthday) during Mussaf. While Kesher Israel’s talented chazzan led the shul in a lovely tune for that prayer, it just was not the one I associate with that part of davening. As I softly sang the prayer to my familiar tune, I closed my eyes and felt myself transported to a Rosh Hashanah more than twenty years ago.
I am a ninth grade student at the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study (WITS) – Milwaukee’s yeshiva high school. Though I left my hometown of Cleveland just a few weeks ago, I can already feel a whole new world opening before me. In that short period of time I have begun the process of bonding with new friends from all over the country, learning and developing meaningful relationships with the yeshiva’s rebbeim and experiencing camaraderie the likes of which I have never known before.
With the entire yeshiva gathered in the WITS beis medrash, the Rosh Hashanah davening is incredible. Mussaf has begun. After reciting the “Hineni” prayer in his melodious voice, Rabbi Ephraim Becker leads us in the most beautiful and haunting and inspiring Kaddish I have ever heard, and each of us recites our Shemoneh Esrei.
During Chazaras HaShatz, Rabbi Raphael Wachsman flawlessly sounds the shofar three times. Immediately after each round of shofar blowing, Rabbi Becker leads the entire yeshiva as we loudly sing the most moving rendition of HaYom HaRas Olam I can imagine.
I happily spent all four years of yeshiva high school at WITS, and that memory of us all singing HaYom HaRas Olam together will always be seared in my mind. As soon as we reached that prayer at Kesher Israel this year on Rosh Hashanah, singing the tune I associate with it allowed me to revisit one of the most special and transformative periods in my life.