Photo Credit: Jewish Press

All of Jewish life appears to be a system of cycles and circles. We celebrate the same holidays every year, as we pass through the same twelve months, as we go through the same cycle of reading the Torah. However, as we have explained thus far, the ideal is not to transcend this circular system, but to uplift it, to transform the circle into a spiral, and to find deeper ways of creating newness within the circular system. When we celebrate each holiday, we do not simply commemorate a historical event; we tap into and experience the deep energies inherent at that point in time. All the chagim give us the opportunity to access unique spiritual energies in time; and fascinatingly, this same spiraling phenomenon takes place within the world of music.



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 introduction creates a build-up of emotion that rises slowly until it ascends into the chorus. While the chorus soars above the introduction, ideally, it does not then simply revert to the original starting point. Instead, the second low part should build upon the chorus, using the waves of momentum and energy that the chorus created to 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 used to 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 ascend spiritually 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).


The Dance of Tzaddikim

When the Gemara (Taanis 31a) describes the tzaddikim dancing around Hashem in circles, it reflects this principle as well. Olam Haba is a place of eternal spiritual growth. Every time the tzaddik circles around Hashem, He experiences a higher level of spiritual awareness, a more elevated understanding of spiritual truth, and a deeper connection with Hashem. Thus, the tzaddikim are not dancing around Hashem in circles, but ascending along a spiral of spiritual growth.


Shira: The Beauty of Song

This deep understanding of song is beautifully expressed in the Hebrew word for song, “shira.” While shira means a song, the word shir is also comprised of the letters that make up the word “yashar” (straight), because at first, a song appears to progress along a straight line. However, shir also means a ring or circle, because upon further analysis, a song is a circular, repetitive progression. The final step, though, is the realization that a song encompasses the exact pattern we discussed regarding time. A song does not progress forward in a straight line nor does it cycle in circles; it spirals upwards – elevating our circular movement into a climb of spiritual ascension.

This spiritual concept is beautifully expressed in the musical scale. The Western scale is comprised of seven musical notes. However, the eighth note is actually a repeat of the first note, simply on the next “rung” up, one octave higher. Essentially, the musical scale is a spiral staircase, in which the seven notes repeat in an ascending spiral, and the eighth note – the starting point of the next scale – is an elevated form of the original first note.

As we have discussed previously, the Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25) explains that seven is the number of the natural. This is why all physical and natural components of this world are comprised of sevens: There are seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light, and many other examples. “Six” represents the physical pieces, such as the days of the week. “Seven” represents that which unites the physical pieces together, connecting the physical to the spiritual, such as Shabbos. The “eighth” refers to that which transcends the sum of the pieces, the transcendent aspect that emanates from the level of seven. “Eight” is that which transcends the physical, such as bris milah and Chanukah. This is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day; we transform the most physical and potentially animalistic organ into a vehicle of holiness and transcendence. This same theme of eight explains why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and it is why the miracle came through shemen (oil), a word with the same root and concept as shemonah, eight. However, as we have just shown, transcendence is simply uplifting the lower level one rung up. The eighth musical note is a return to the first note, but one level higher. This is the idea of transforming the circular system of teva (circles) into spirals (l’maalah min ha’teva – above the natural). We ride the waves of nature, uplifting them into ascending stairwells toward the infinite.


Beautiful Circles

When a circle is merely cyclical, detached from growth, it represents spiritual death. This is the circle of routine, of habit, of endless repetition with no forward progress. However, routine, habit, and repetition can be harnessed toward powerful growth and ascension as well. Our point of free will is located at the intersection of whether or not to gossip, hit snooze, give charity, smile, or eat right. These are the battles of inches; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Each time we confront one of these challenges, we engage in this internal battle. On the outside, we may give nothing away, but within each of us exists a fierce battle of will for spiritual ground – for eternity. The way to win these battles is by consistently making the right choice, by harnessing our will to overcome at the same challenge again and again. This repetitive, cyclical action creates an internal transformation, and what was once a struggle becomes an easy, constant victory. Transforming struggle into habit is the ideal utilization of the circular concept. The problem is when that habit then becomes mindless and robotic. If you struggle to say all the words of tefillah, then it is essential to work on this again and again until it becomes second nature. The next goal, though, is to ensure that even if the words of davening become second nature, your awareness and concentration continue to be vibrant and sincere. However, just as an upwards trajectory transforms circular stagnation into spiraling ascension, there are other ways that circles relate to spiritual greatness.


Life Is a Song

When we live holistic lives, tapping into the true meaning of existence, life becomes a song, a magical and immersive experience. The beauty of a song is our unique ability to enjoy every note, every step, every stage in the journey. If we learn to live life in such a way – where every step is not only a means toward becoming something else, but is fully experienced, embraced, and treasured as an opportunity – then life itself transforms into a cosmic symphony. Looking at the world through this lens, everything in the world plays its notes, and each person becomes redefined as a unique and essential musician in Hashem’s Divine orchestra of life. On the deepest level, a true musician does not play the music, but becomes the music. Music is powerful, but becoming the music is a sublime experience. (The deepest form of music is when the musician becomes one with the music he is playing. When done right, the musician actually becomes the music. Ask a professional musician and they’ll tell you that when they are truly in their element, they don’t feel themselves playing the music, they are the music; it’s an experience of true oneness where the musician almost watches himself play the song. Just like a prophet becomes the prophecy, a musician 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 a transcendent spiral staircase that leads toward our ultimate destination.

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Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: