I threw a wish in the well, Don’t ask me,
I’ll never tell I looked to you as it fell, And now you’re in my way
I’d trade my soul for a wish, Pennies and dimes for a kiss,
I wasn’t looking for this, But now you’re in my way
Your stare was holdin’, Ripped jeans, skin was showin’
Hot night, wind was blowin’ Where you think you’re going, baby?
Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here’s my number, So call me, maybe?
We all have that song that we can’t seem to get out of our heads. The lyrics, the melody. It doesn’t matter if it’s catchy. It doesn’t matter if it is your type of music. You hear it on the radio enough times, and it is stuck in your head. It is played on commercials and at sporting events. It seems to never get old. That is the power of a song and of a melody. The words are stuck in stay with you. For me, that song is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” I have to admit, it is quite catchy. It is all quite silly. The words have no meaning to me, no real significance. Yet, the melody has been stuck in my head morning, noon, and night for months and I can’t forget it if I tried. This song has been playing on just about every radio station, every five minutes, for the past couple of months. It reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, with over 8.3 million copies of the song sold, and is one of the best-selling digital singles of all time.
There is something powerful about getting that melody stuck in your head. That is how you remember the lyrics, and ultimately, the message behind the lyrics. I first learned the Aleinu prayer as a child before I could even read Hebrew. Coming to services with my parents week after week, that melody would start: Aleinu Leshabe’ach La’adon Hakol… and then I would just go into autopilot.
The power of melody, is that we remember. In the second grade, song is how I learned the fifty states. A catchy melody helps you remember them in alphabetical order: “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut…” Song was how I learned the order of the Presidents of the United States while in the fifth grade: “Washington, Adams; Washington, Adams; Jefferson Oh; Jefferson Oh; James Madison; James Madison; James Monroe; James Monroe; John Quincy Adams, Ooh Ooh…”
So too, in Moses’ last opportunity to address the Jewish people, he doesn’t offer a final statement, give a final state of the union address. He doesn’t give a final sermon from the pulpit. Instead, he chooses to share parting words with the children of Israel, with the Jewish people that he lead out of Egypt, out of slavery, that he led through the wilderness for forty years, turning a people into a nation, through song.
Parashat Vayeilech ends with the following verse:
Vaydaber Moshe b’Oznei Kol Kahal Yisrael et Divrei Hashira Hazot ad Tumam
And Moses recited in the ears of the entire congregation of Israel, the words of this song.
Most rabbinic commentators explain that Moses actually offered a poem because the meaning of the words is difficult to make sense of. If it is an allegory or uses odd imagery, then it must be a poem, they conclude. Additionally, we do not know the melody of this swan song. All we have is the melody of the Torah trope that we use when we read from the Torah scroll. Yet, I imagine Moses, before he ascends atop Har Nevo, Mount Nebo, singing to his people, in the same way a parent sings a nighttime lullaby to a child, protecting them from nightmares.
Moses’ song, found in Parashat Ha’azinu begins with these words:
Ha’azinu Hashayim va’adaberah v’tishma haaretz imrei fi
Give ear oh Heavens and let me recite and let the earth hear what I am saying.
The message of the song is Moses’ attempt to tell the Jewish people that the journey hasn’t been easy. In fact it has been quite bumpy. And certainly, entering the land of Israel that is inhabited by other nations, it won’t get any easier. Still, even if the journey has been one of doubt, and there will be times in our lives in which we doubt, and it is difficult at times to see God as the ideal, we must have faith in God even while the world remains imperfect. This is the message of Moses’ song.
And so after the final words of this song are sung, Moses says to the people Israel:
Simu l’vavchem l’chol hadevarim asher anochi me’ed bachem hayom asher t’tzav’vum et beineichem lishmor la’asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot.
Take to heart all the words of this song which I have warned you about and enjoin them upon your children so that future generations may follow the words of the Torah as well and find meaning in it.
Essentially, Moses is saying: Listening to the words I’ve sung, and sing them again. Allow the melody to get stuck in your head so that the message of Torah, and the meaning of Torah, stays with you… just like “Call Me Maybe” gets stuck in my head.
After an spiritually meaningful and inspirational High Holidays, I love to reflect on the experience itself. It amazes me, year after year, that the melodies and much of the piyyutim, the liturgical songs and poetry of the High Holy Days, are distinct for this time of year, reserved specifically the Days of Awe. We hear these melodies for three days and then they return to the back of our minds. We retire them until this same time next year. Yet, it amazes me that with one note, one short syllable sung by the Hazzan, we sing the words of Kol Nidre or the U’netaneh Tokef as if the melody is fresh in our minds, as if they are words that we recite daily.
So too when we think of the melody, when we sing the melody, the themes of the High Holy Days return to us. That is the power of melody. That is the power of music. So what are the messages of these high holidays that we remember through song and through music?
We are reminded that we are imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for perfection. We embrace a loving God that accepts us for who we are, rather than who we are not, a God that knows that we try to be better, even when we fail.
We strive to strengthen our relationships with those around us, friends and family, acquaintances, those relationships that are strong and those relationships that need work. We bring ourselves closer to God through repenting, by not being afraid to say “I’m sorry,” I made a mistake, by helping others and giving to others, without expecting anything in return, and by making time in our lives to talk to God – not just in the synagogue, but in our homes, while we are lying awake at night in our beds and while we are sitting outdoors among the trees. Allow ourselves to wrestle with God.
So instead of driving in the car and singing “Call Me Maybe” at the top of our lungs, in the coming days and weeks following the Yamim Noraim, these days of Awe, maybe we should hold unto these melodies of the High Holy Days and sing them at the top of our lungs. With the windows rolled up, we think no one will hear us, but God hears us. And just as the power of melody and song allowed Moses to leave a lasting imprint on the Jewish people, let the power of the music and liturgy of the High Holy Days allow us remain on a high, an elevated state, continuing to feel a close connection to God, to community, to ourselves.
After Neilah on Yom Kippur we tend to exhale. We loosen the tie, take off our shoes, have a bagel and shmear, and just like that, life goes back to normal. Instead, let the melodies linger and let the message of the music, of our liturgy, of the melodies, stay with us, and continue to sing the words of the High Holy Days proudly. Now that we are given this opportunity for a new year, what are we going to do with it? Just as Moses sang loud to get his message across, led us continue to sing as well, and let the words of song, lead to action.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky