As Holocaust Memorial Day closed, with its commemoration of destruction, Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, with its celebration of creation, began. As the week including both of them ends, we arrive at Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song.
Song has accompanied humanity throughout. Judaism is a religion of song; the opening chapter of the Torah is a paean of praise to the emergence of the world of wonder, and the first weekly portion refers to the origin of music. Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook understood the very name Israel as the conjoining of two words shir and El, song and God: Israel means God’s song, singing before God.
Poets and musicians have written with passion about their art; philosophers of aesthetics have speculated about its essence and power. The Torah does not analyse its nature and origins, but declares, simply and frankly, the impetus towards it:
I shall sing, I must sing, to God…
God’s song is my strength.
This is my God, whose beauty I proclaim. ’ (Exodus 15:1,2)
Poetry is the language of the heart and soul; music is what they articulate beneath and beyond the limitations of words. Poetry, in its rhythm and alliteration, is music too. Both poetry and music have accompanied us and been created in even the bleakest and most terrible of times. Hence Carolyn Forche chose as motto for her anthology, Against Forgetting, Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, the lines by Bertold Brecht:
In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
But how can there be song even in exile, even in transit, concentration and death camps? The question is ancient:
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept:
How shall we sing God’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137)
Yet even, and precisely, amidst brutality, words and music affirm dignity, constitute witness and even bring a strange beauty to places of suffering and longing where the heart and the unbearable are compelled to meet. ‘Can you put words to this?’ asked a woman in the starving queue of relatives outside a prison in Stalinist Russia, recognising that the person standing freezing next to her was Anna Akhmatova. ‘Yes, I can,’ she said; and did.
Song is resilience, resistance, and, like the song of the Children of Israel at the sea, its testimony remains long after tyrants and their empires have collapsed.
And song is also joy, music the surge of the spirit’s wonder. Poets and prophets have always understood that all creation sings: ‘The mountains and the hills will break forth before you in song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ (Isaiah 55:12) Tu Bishevat doesn’t just mark the importance of trees, with their essential contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health. It reminds us to listen to how they, too, sing.
It isn’t only mystics with their obfuscating tendencies who hear music in the very nature of the universe. ‘We astronomers,’ wrote the poet and scientist Rebecca Elson, in an extraordinary, epigrammatic line, ‘Honour our responsibility to awe.’
The Torah portion which includes the Song at the Sea which gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, concludes with the words, ‘For I am the God who heals you.’ In these difficult times, with their uncertainty, anxiety and grief, may music and poetry heal, restore and strengthen our heart and spirit.