According to Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of a book on the impact of music on the mind titled Musicophilia, music demands more of the brain, in terms of cognitive function, than ordinary language. Thus explains the retention of musical memory despite other memory loss when various parts of the brain are damaged - this occurs apparently because music requires so many different parts of the brain to engage. Put simply, music activates our mind as well as our hearts. It literally, according to Sacks, leaves a physical mark on the brain -- a tangible imprint on memory. Perhaps this is why Jewish tradition calls on us to not just read Torah, but to chant it, so it is imprinted on our minds and souls
This week’s portion opens: Chant opening verse of Beha’alotcha...
As I shared in my M’kor Mail message, we couldn’t be in better place in our Torah cycle than this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha-alot’cha! Not only does this portion outline the mechanics, the how-to of the journey through the desert to the Promised Land, but the manner in which we are to chant certain pairs of verses when we read this portion aloud is telling of all the myriad of feelings many are experiencing in these last weeks in our building situated here on Evesham Road. Perhaps this chant can serve as an expression of the heart and mind.
of chanting the text as per usual, a special melodic motif
is used for various couplets of this week’s portion. Recall the sound of our regular Shabbat chant, repeat opening verse. Now let's listen to our special melody used for the journeying: chant example ...
Perhaps this melody sounds a bit familiar –
This special melody, unknown in origin, is referred to by scholars by a highly scientific name, wait for it: the “wandering melody.” Yes, that is its official name in the scholarly literature on the subject. It is named thus not because it is the melody in a portion about journeys, but rather because the melody has wandered through history along with us, passed down for generations via oral transmission.
Why a special melody for these verses in our Torah portion? Abraham W. Binder, the transcriber extraordinaire of cantillation says the “wandering melody’s” function is to “add expressiveness and festivity to the text and occasion.” (Biblical Chant, 65). I think it's about far more than celebration. This special melody occurs in several other places:
- · On the festival of Simchat Torah: this special “wandering” motif is used to mark the conclusion of each day of creation (ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום אחד); musically marking the transition between each day of creation.
- · We mark the conclusion of the public reading or study of each book of Torah, too, with this “wandering melody”: חזק חזק ונתחזק,
- · On Yom Kippur, this same “wandering melody” provides the musical grounding of the traditional viddui, the confessional, "אשמנוּ, בגדנו, גזלנו, דברנו דפי"
- · Of course, The Shira - Song of the Sea employs this melodic excursion (mi chamocha…)
- · And finally, here the Book of Numbers, in parashat Beha-alot’cha, this melody is used in order to highlight the Israelites’ journeys:: “וְעַל צְבָא מַטֵּה בְּנֵי יִשָֹשְכָר נְתַנְאֵל בֶּן צוּעָר: וְעַל צְבָא מַטֵּה זְבוּלֻן אֱלִיאָב בֶּן חֵלֹן"” as they transition from a wandering, loosely constructed band into a highly organized and cohesive society with a set destination.
What’s the common denominator of these events and occasions? Why are they connected by a musical motif? And what can we, as we embark on our journey, learn from it?
Each of these moments mark transition, and save for the creation story – which marks the transitions between each day of God’s creation, each moment marks human transition. This wandering melody draws attention to the complexity of and transformative power of transitions whether individual – through a process of teshuvah marked on Yom Kippur or communal - a journey made from one place to another, a geographic and psychological journey. The point of the journey in this week’s Torah portion is to take us to a place of promise. Canaan, has been marketed as The Promised Land, a place of both sustenance and sweetness. But the only way to get there is to come together as community, commit to the future, and as our prayer book demands, to march there together.
It is too easy to view The Exodus from Egypt as the symbol of the ultimate achievement of freedom, a moment frozen in time that we celebrate each year with timbrel and song. The ancient wandering melodic strain is used, however, both in The Shira sung at that moment after crossing the Sea as well as here at the start of our journey towards a new place. This should remind us that redemption isn’t a one-time event; redemption continually requires transitions. On this Torah is clear, transition, journeying forward is necessary. We can’t stay put. Inertia isn’t the way to a promising future. At the same time, transitions can be tough. Perhaps that’s part of why a festive melody developed to help us through them. Recall – even the Yom Kippur confessional is sung to this same motif used to celebrate freedom from Egyptian bondage. This simple tune, Torah's ”wandering melody” reminds us of the joy inherent in making positive change even when it’s difficult.
Ken y'hi ratzon.