by Rabbi Lawrence Englander,
of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
A lone street musician in Santa Monica, California, strums his guitar and begins to sing “Stand By Me” (click
for YouTube clip). Then, through the marvel of technology, the camera shifts to New Orleans where another musician picks up the tune and carries on. The music then takes us across the world – to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, the Congo and South Africa – as all the musicians blend into a unified chorus. The creator of this virtual band, Mark Johnson, explains his endeavour in this way: “We have to inspire each other to come together as a human race; and music is the best way to do this.” Since this first recording, Johnson has formed a real touring band that, through music, draws attention to human suffering around the world and urges audiences to “stand by” each other to make a change for the better.
I recently had the opportunity to hear the
Playing for Change
band in concert, and it gave me a new interpretation for this week’s Torah portion. Seventy Elders are summoned to the Tent of Meeting. Moses, like the first street singer, shares his prophetic melody with them so that all seventy begin to speak in prophetic ecstasy. The
12) likens Moses to a large candle kindling smaller ones: his light is not diminished by sharing it with others, and yet the result is to bring more light and warmth into the world.
What did the Elders say when they prophesied? The Torah is silent on this matter, but the Rabbis suggest that they predicted Joshua’s future leadership, or even the final messianic war against evil (Bab. Talmud,
17a). However, I prefer to think that the Elders simply sang a
without words; their prophecy was communicated through music, the language of God.
The Torah goes on to state that two Elders, named Eldad and Medad, had not been called to the Tent but nevertheless had begun to prophesy in the camp. Joshua hears them and becomes worried about the threat to Moses’ authority. However, when Joshua suggests to his mentor that he restrain the two mavericks, Moses responds with a broader vision: “
Would that all the Eternal’s people were prophets, that the Eternal might put divine spirit upon them
!” (Numbers 11:29). If such a wonder were to take place, thought Moses, then surely we would all “stand by” each other and bring about
As for us today: we may not be prophets, but we do have the responsibility of taking up the melody of our prophetic tradition and giving it voice on every street corner. We must sing it to the oppressed, in places where despots impose the monotone of tyranny upon their people. We must sing it to the over-privileged, whose infatuation with technology and acquisition deafens them to the melody of the soul. We must sing it to ourselves, to let the harmony of Jewish tradition resonate in our lives.
To change metaphors, in the Haftarah portion for
2:14-4:17) the prophet Zechariah sees a menorah radiating light into the dark corners of the world. He receives the message: “
Not by military might, not by brute strength, but by My spirit, says the Eternal One of Hosts
” (Zech. 4:6). It is God’s spirit that brings light and music into the world.
, the Hebrew word Zechariah uses for “spirit,” is the same word that we find in the Torah
for Moses’ prophetic gift. Combining the two passages, we derive the following teaching: God’s spirit has the power to bring enlightenment and peace to the world; but the only way to activate this spirit is through our deeds. It is our responsibility to take up the instruments of
and play the symphony of redemption. As Jews, we can settle for nothing less!
Lawrence A. Englander is rabbi of Solel Congregation, Mississauga, Ontario Canada.