By Rabbi Gary A. Glickstein,
Temple Beth Sholom
Will you sing about me when I’m gone
The rapper Kendrick Lamar recorded a song he wrote with Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Quincy Jones. The words Lamar raps relate mostly to a world you and I only read about in the news or see in our local reporters’ breaking stories. However, the sentiment of the plea made is one that should resonate for all of us:
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Now am I worth it?
Did I put enough work in?
Promise that you will sing about me
I said when the lights shut off
And it’s my turn to settle down
My main concern
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said,
“There are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries; the man on the next level is silent; the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into song.”
I recently officiated at a funeral of a man who had reached 90 plus years and so valued his life that he had instructed all his family, friends and clergy to have a party, including song and dancing, in lieu of a funeral.
The service included a great deal of laughter and joyous remembrances. However, the last part of the commemoration included a marching band from the local university playing the school fight song, followed by dance music (to which members of the family got up and danced) and a swinging rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as his coffin left the building.
I do not believe that funeral reflects Moses’ intent in his final instructions to the Jewish People before his death.
”Now therefore, write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.”
(Deuteronomy 31:19) Did Moses intend by these words that we chant the Torah as a song? Was he suggesting that the words are, by themselves, inadequate to convey the depth of meaning God intended? Does the melody always need to be traditional and consistent?
We received the words. The melody Moshe taught is lost in time. Over generations we have created and evolved new melodies that now enhance our experience of hearing the Torah.
Perhaps, in Heschel’s ladder of holiness, raising up our sorrow, we can understand the command to sing the song of Torah.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, suggests that this 613th commandment given in the Torah is
“not simply about the Torah, but about the duty to make the Torah new in each generation. To make the Torah live anew, it is not enough to hand it on cognitively – as mere history and law, it must speak to us affectively, emotionally.”
(Covenant and Conversation, 9/12/2009)
The implication is that because each of us sings the song through the unique instrument of our soul, the Torah is renewed through each of us.
This reflects the Midrash found in Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25 where Rav Yose bar Rav Hanina says that each of the Israelites at Sinai heard the words of Torah at exactly their own unique level of understanding and comprehension. As it was first heard distinctly and differently, as if with unique melodies, so it is to be transmitted through our souls as a distinct composition.
The words remain the same; the melody changes through each of us.
Parashat VaYelech brings us to the very brink of Moshe’s death, when he declares that he is a hundred and twenty years old. His final instruction is to sing the Torah, God’s Torah, which Moshe sang through his life.
During this time of year in the Hebrew calendar we contemplate our end. What is the Torah we bequeath to the next generation? What is the melody they will sing because of our teachings? Will they sing of us at all? Are our lives worthy of Torah song?
As we peer into the Book of Life one more time, praying to be written and sealed for a good year, let us contemplate what we have added through our life, what we will leave that will resonate through others and make a positive impact on the future. And let us take comfort in the message Moshe shared with our people during his final hours:
“Be strong and of good courage and do not fear….God is with you.”