It came out of nowhere. A flood of emotions suddenly hit Benny. Before he knew what was happening, there were tears streaming down his face. He immediately pulled over and tried to regain his composure. Strangely enough, he had no idea why he was crying. He sat there for a few minutes before it suddenly hit him, hard.
Five months ago, he had been engaged to a wonderful woman, Sara. They had dated for a while and were excited to finally build a home based on their shared values and dreams. And then, out of nowhere, she broke the engagement. Benny still didn’t know why, and he was still heartbroken. At the very moment that she broke it off, there was a song playing in the background; the very same song that had was now playing in his car. The music brought back all the emotions, and he cried as he relived the worst day of his life. When he was able to calm down and continue on to work, he began to think about the power of music.
The Mystery of Music
There may be nothing more enchanting, mystical, and mysterious than the wonder of music. Music has the ability to reach the very root of our soul. The right melody can transform our mood, bring us to tears of sadness or joy, and release emotions buried deep within of bedrock of our consciousness. Music unlocks the door to our hearts, allowing us to feel and embrace our innermost yearnings for connection and oneness lying dormant within each of us, begging to be freed, begging to be expressed. From the artist’s perspective, music is the vulnerable expression of self; from the listener’s perspective, music is permission to connect to the divine, the means by which to transcend the shackles of mundane existence, to experience something other-worldly. Many people have their favorite song, their personal gateway to spiritual ecstasy. With every note and every strum, their soul awakens and transcends. The Rambam states that had we not been gifted the Torah, we would have studied music in order to tap into spiritual truths. What, then, is the secret of music?
If one breaks down and analyzes a musical piece, they would likely be surprised at its apparent simplicity. Almost every Jewish song, especially in Western music, follows the same two-step progression. The song begins with a low, steady build-up, progressively increasing in emotional intensity as it lays the foundation for what is to come. This build-up repeats itself, again rising in intensity, before bursting into the chorus, where the contained introduction expands into a full expression of emotion, where the soul erupts, unfiltered, guided by the stirring melody and words that perfectly capture the indescribable tune. The song then reverts back to the lower introduction, and this process repeats itself (sometimes with a bridge) until the song’s conclusion. Thus, the structure of a song is essentially a circle. Two low verses, two high, and repeat. One would expect music, one of the most spiritually uplifting experiences, to be more intricate, more novel, than a simple circle.
We find ourselves on the brink of Sukkos, a holiday uniquely connected to circles and song. Every day, as we recite the hakafos, we walk in a circle. On Simchas Torah, as we celebrate the completion of the Torah with joyous song, we repeat this circular process seven times over. What is it about song that so enraptures the human spirit?
Circles: Spiritual Death
A circle represents spiritual death. It is a geometrical anomaly, as it is the only shape with no newness- no turns, no corners, no changes. It has no beginning and no end. A circle is a cycle that goes nowhere, lacks evolution, and generates no growth. No point on the circle is unique, with each point equidistant to the center. A circle simply cycles back to its starting point, without making any progress. The idea of circles representing spiritual death is manifest throughout the Torah, most remarkably in the very creation of the world.
Judaism: A Religion of Newness
Judaism is strongly connected to the concept of newness. Upon leaving Egypt as a newly formed nation, the first mitzvah the Jewish People receive is the commandment to declare the new month, “Ha’chodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim” – This month shall be for you as the head of months (Shemos 12:2). Why is this the first mitzvah the Jewish People are given, right at the moment of their formation? This seems like a secondary concept, paling in comparison to mitzvos such as Shabbos, bris milah, and other such fundamental, prominent mitzvos. What is unique about declaring the new month?
Upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish People were experiencing their very own birth, their inception as a nation. The Hebrew word for month, chodesh, also spells chadash, “new.” Just as the moon constantly changes as it waxes and wanes, we are a people of newness and constant growth, waxing and waning through our endless evolution. This is why the Jewish People count by the lunar year, built from months. The Western world, however, counts by the solar year, which is based on the earth’s yearly rotation around the sun. The Hebrew word for year is shana, which also means old (yashan), and comes from the same root as the word yashein, which means sleeping. It reflects the concept of repetition and mindless cycles, as the word sheini means to repeat or do something twice. The sun does not appear to change, it remains static. A life of shana represents a life spent spiritually sleeping, lacking any growth or newness. In a solar year, the months are merely a practical way of breaking down the year. In the lunar year, however, the months are the creative building blocks that come together to form the year. In essence, the Jewish system is built from twelve creative months, not a single repeating year. However, to understand the true ideals of Judaism and reframe how we are meant to relate to circles, we must briefly delve into the nature of time.
The Nature of Time
The widely accepted understanding of time is that it moves in a straight line. Hashem created our world of space and time, and since its inception, time has been moving inexorably forward. Along this line of time is the past, present, and the future. If we were to move backward on this line, we could peer through history and find Avraham Avinu at the Akeida, Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah, and the Rambam writing the Mishneh Torah. Our current experience is taking place in the middle of the line, and if we could move forward along the line, we would see events that have not yet occurred. However, there is a major contradiction to this theory.
There is a piyut in the Pesach Haggadah (U’vchen Va’amartem) which describes how Avraham Avinu served matzah to the three angels who visited him because it was Pesach at that time. Rashi (Bereishis 19:3) quotes this opinion and says that Lot did the same for the malachim who came to Sedom. How can this be? The mitzvah of matzah originates from the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim – which would not occur for another two hundred years!
Circles in Time
In order to understand why Avraham and Lot served their guests matzah before Pesach even occurred, we must develop a deeper understanding of time. Time does not move along a continuous, straight line; it circles around in a repeating yearly cycle. As the Ramchal explains, Hashem created thematic cycles of time, and each point in the year holds unique spiritual energy.
This deep understanding transforms our perception of time. We don’t celebrate freedom each year on the 15th of Nissan because that’s when the Jews were freed from Egypt, rather the Jews were redeemed from Egypt on the 15th of Nissan because that is zman cheiruseinu, the time of freedom. That power of freedom is what allowed the Jews to escape the slavery of Mitzrayim, and this is why Avraham and Lot ate matzah long before Yetzias Mitzrayim occurred. Matzah represents freedom, and Avraham and Lot tapped into the spiritual energy of freedom that is present at that point in time. Rather than commemorating a historical event, they were tapping into the deep energies of time already inherent at that point in the circle. So too, when we celebrate each holiday, we do not simply commemorate a historical event, we experience and tap into the deep energies inherent at that point in time. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, and all the rest of the chagim give us the opportunity to access unique spiritual energies in time.
Spirals in Time
However, even the circle analogy is limiting. If time were indeed a circle, each point of the year would simply be a repetition of that point from the previous year, from the previous loop around the circle. That would be pointless. We do not seek to re-experience the past each year. Our goal is to expand upon what we have created year after year, so that each time we return to that same point on the circle, we are on a fundamentally different level. Each Rosh Hashana must be higher than the previous one, each Pesach, a new Pesach, each Shavuos, a new Shavuos. Through our growth and ascension, we convert the two-dimensional circle into a three-dimensional spiral, traversing along the same circle at ever greater heights. We maintain circularity while achieving ascension.
The same is true for all spiritual circles. The ideal is not to transcend the circular system, but to uplift it, to transform the circle into a spiral, to find innovative ways of creating newness within the circular system, not beyond it.
The Concept of Song
Although a song may superficially appear to be like a circle- two low verses, two high, and repeat- a song is actually meant to be a spiral. The intro creates a build-up of emotion that ascends into the chorus. But ideally, the chorus does not simply revert back to the original starting point. Instead, the second low part is meant to build on the chorus, still riding the waves of momentum and energy that the chorus created, and therefore begin on a fundamentally higher level. The low part is deeper this time, and you can feel the greater level of intensity. And then, as the low part builds up even more powerfully, it bursts into an even more potent and explosive chorus. This process can theoretically repeat itself ad-infinitum. As a matter of fact, at Jewish weddings of old they would dance around in circles singing the same song for hours on end. Each time around they would build the next rung in the spiral of the song as they built the next rung in their circular dancing. This is why we dance in circles at celebrations and during the hakafos of Sukkos. We are in fact dancing in spirals, and as we ascend through song, we spiritually ascend as well.
Each day of Sukkos, we build off the previous day’s hakafah, climbing one rung higher. On Simchas Torah, after building throughout Sukkos, we dance up all seven flights of our newly built spiral staircase and accept the Torah in a transcendent fashion (the eighth rung).
Life is a Song
When one lives a truly holistic life, tapping into the true nature and meaning of existence, life itself becomes a song, a magical and immersive experience. The true beauty of a song is our unique ability to enjoy every note, every step, every stage in the progression. If one learns to live life in such a way, where every step is not only a means towards becoming something else, but was fully experienced, embraced, and treasured opportunity, then life itself would transform into a cosmic symphony, a soulful adventure. Looking at the world through this lens, every aspect of reality plays its notes, and every person becomes redefined as a unique musician in Hashem’s eternal orchestra of life. Music is powerful, but becoming part of the music is even more sublime. On the deepest level, a true musician does not play the music, but becomes the music. May we all be inspired to play our instrument, to contribute our song into the grand symphony of life, and to transform the circles of life into the transcendent spiral staircase that leads towards our ultimate destination.