Using Music to Get to the Mountaintop
By Daniel R. Weiss
How does Jewish Day School education teach our children to use song as a method for learning, self-discovery and connection to the global world?
There is power found in song. It is all encompassing. It surrounds us. It is how we teach our children. It is in our connection to our faith. It is in our connection to history. It binds us with people of different faiths, ethnicities and race. It allows for introspection. By drawing connections to this past week’s Torah portion and our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., song can lift us to the mountaintop.
Music has always played a central role in my life. It is almost daily that in mid-conversation I will throw in a song lyric or two. My wife and I often break out in song while sitting at the dinner table. While embarrassing for our kids, it is our own little reminder that the right lyric or a favorite musician plays a significant role in what we think and do.
Music is central in the experiences that we offer our students. In Hebrew the word shir can be translated both as song or poem. The rhythm, melody, and repetition of song unlocks Hebrew language, English literature, and Biblical texts. There is power found in song. It is all encompassing. It surrounds us.
This past week, a number of songs became my internal soundtrack.
This past Shabbat was known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of song, in which we recount the song of the Jewish people as they cross through the sea to freedom. Az Yashir is the first song mentioned in the entire Bible. The opening words say, Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisrael, “so Moshe and the children of Israel will sing.” Singing became synonymous with freedom. It is something that we must continue to do today and in the future.
The story of our Exodus from Egypt and the use of song is one that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of by connecting the story of the Exodus to the struggle for civil rights. In his speech in Memphis, Tennessee, referred to as “On the Mountaintop,” Dr. King’s poetic speech repeatedly referred to the plight of the “Israelites” as they were slaves in Egypt.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I often heard stories of Dr. King and his closeness with a local Cleveland rabbi, Arthur Joseph Lelyveld. Rabbi Lelyveld was the rabbi of Fairmount Temple, where my mother grew up. My mother, who was very fond of Rabbi Lelyveld, often shared insights and stories that he had taught her. Rabbi Lelyveld was active in the civil rights movement and helped register black voters in 1964, the same year that he was bloodied and suffered a concussion at the hands of segregationists in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Rabbi Lelyveld received an award from the NAACP for his distinguished service to the cause of freedom. Rabbi Lelyveld and Dr. King became close friends. They often wrote letters to each other sharing thoughts and objectives on how to work together for civil rights.
Rabbi Lelyveld was not the only rabbi to serve as a close ally of Dr. King. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, met Dr. King at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Together, the two spoke at the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubillee Convention in order to gain support for the Jews of Soviet Russia. Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King marched together in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Rabbi Heschel remarked that by marching, his “feet were praying”.
Song and prayer go hand in hand, or in Heschel’s case, foot by foot. The words of Az Yashir are not just a song of freedom; they are a prayer. I can easily hear the sound coming from the walls of water and the beat of footsteps marching through the sea unto freedom.
The idea of Dr. King’s speech’s title, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” became a rallying cry of the civil rights movement. “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” is directly tied to the African-American spiritual song, compiled by John Wesley Work Jr., entitled “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The words were later adapted and rewritten for the civil rights movement, by Peter, Paul and Mary, where the lyrics referred directly to Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt and focused on the words “Let my people go.” John Wesley Work Jr. is also known for another Civil Rights related song, “Wade in the Water,” again referring to the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery, and Moses’ leadership.
As I listen to the musical accompaniment of “Wade in the Water” it is the drumbeat that draws me in. I can imagine the beat as the heartbeat of the Jews as they travel through the sea and the hoof beats of Egyptian horses that gave chase.
Iconic Jewish musician, Debbie Friedman’s yarzheit was also this week. One of Debbie’s most famous songs also comes from last week’s portion, Beshalach. The song, called “Miriam’s Song,” focuses on Moses’ sister, Miriam and her reaction upon crossing the sea. The chorus strikes me as a further connection between the Jewish people, the importance of song and the civil rights movement.
And the women dancing with their timbrels,
Followed Miriam as she sang her song,
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted,
Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.
Again, there is something about the idea of a drumbeat that gets my heart jumping, lifting me to the top of the mountain.
Miriam’s song is about realizing that through song and dance, we can find a deeper connection, allowing not only our lips to pray, but as Heschel said, our feet to pray. That is the Jewish Day School experience.
But it is the true essence of prayer that needs to be realized. The Hebrew word associated with praying is L’hitpalel (literally, to pray). L’hitpalel is reflexive, it means to examine, to judge oneself, allowing us to grow. When we truly pray, we are focusing on who we are and who we want to become. We draw on our past, present and future. It is only when we can connect to our history, to those around us and to what is inside our own heart, that our song comes alive.
That, however, takes faith.
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org