Music is great for stirring up memories and all sorts of other emotions.
Ever since my oldest was a baby, I’ve relied on my repertoire of slow seudah shlishit songs as lullabies, adding an element of personal nostalgia to my kids’ bedtime routines. I was especially pleased when I used to find my son absent-mindedly singing Hamalach Hagoel, a song with particularly strong associations from my NCSY years, as he played. I love passing these special songs on to my kids, and I love the chance to think back to those memories when I sing with them.
Recently, my three-year-old decided to expand her bedtime playlist, so I got the chance to think back and hit on a song I hadn’t thought about in a surprisingly long time. She decided we should sing Shabbos songs even when it’s not Shabbos (apparently, this is a very funny joke), and that there should be three of them. I had already introduced her to one special song from my years in Israel, my treat on the rare occasion I made it to shul (the nearby yeshiva, Merkaz HaRav) on time for Friday night davening. Number two was “V’Shamru” – and when she wanted three, I suddenly found a tune for Tov L’hodos pouring out that I don’t think I’d sung in years. (It’s from the Song of the Day for Shabbos, so it counts as a Shabbos song!) Probably because it wasn’t one of my recent regulars, it brought a particularly intense rush of memories and thoughts.
I’ve always been intrigued by how we relate to these slow songs, with words often taken from pesukim or Talmudic passages and presumably meant to be inspiring. Throughout my years in NCSY and other youth group settings, my two years learning in Israel, and various other experiences between and since, I always found it powerful to be in a room full of people singing a beautiful tune together, and clearly those experiences impacted me enough that I wanted to share them, on some level, with my kids.
But even as a teenager, even as I enjoyed those moments united in song, I was often uncomfortably aware of a disconnect between the singing and the emotions. Was I experiencing a spiritual moment, connecting to G-d through the words of Tanach put to music? Or was I simply enjoying a nice tune with friends, all of us deluding ourselves into thinking it was about G-d when really it was about us?
Over the years, I began making a concerted effort to pay attention to the words of the songs we sang, trying to make sure at least some of my focus was on the meaning, not just on the tune and the company and the experience. It doesn’t always work, but I try.
So what was I thinking about the first time I sang that Tov L’hodos tune to my little girl?
On one hand, I was filled with memories. I was thinking about NCSY, trying to remember if we ever sang that tune or just that other one. I was thinking about my school in Israel, where we definitely sang that tune all the time. I was thinking about the experience of being with that group of girls, and that one friend’s expression when she was immersed in song. I was thinking about the madricha who got married that year, who walked down to that tune at her wedding as we all swooned. I was wondering what she’s up to and if I could look her up next time I’m in Israel, if she’d even remember me after all this time. I was thinking about that funny thing she used to say. I was even thinking about the funny lyric switch my friend’s brother’s friends used to sing.
And at the same time, I was also thinking about the words.
From Tehillim chapter 92: “It is good to give thanks to Hashem, and to sing praises to Your Name, Elyon. To tell [of] Your kindness in the morning, and [of] Your faithfulness in the nights.”
I’ve been privileged to learn (and teach) this perek of Tehillim a few times, so I had a head start on the words. (Enough to know some interpretations might translate differently than I just did, but we’ll leave that aside.) In particular, I found myself thinking of commentaries who suggest that the reference to morning vs. nights is actually about exile vs. redemption: We can easily tell of G-d’s kindness during the “daylight” of redemption, when things are obviously good, while faith is what gets us through the darkness of the “nights” of exile.
Sounds appropriate for the Three Weeks, right? To connect to G-d through these words of Tehillim, focusing on holding faith during the darkness of exile and longing for the light of Redemption?
Ah, but that’s not what I was thinking about.
They say the beauty of Sefer Tehillim, and its effectiveness as a source of prayers, comes from the relevance of King David’s words to all people, in all times. There is always a way to relate to the words of Tehillim, always something there that is applicable to a particular moment of struggle or joy. I think that’s true of much of our liturgy. When I was in high school, I achieved my best moments of kavanah while reciting Atah Chonen (asking for “knowledge”) on test days. As I got older and my challenges shifted, the same words helped me pray fervently for the knowledge and insight I would need to navigate some stage of adulthood, to learn well and teach effectively, to figure out some parenting challenge.
It’s no surprise, then, that as I sang to my daughter about times of morning and night, the times when things seem clear and good versus the times they seem dark and we’re not sure how we’ll get through other than by faith alone, I related the words to different elements of life than I did back in my post-high school days in Israel.
Back then, I really did connect the words to exile and redemption. I was immersed in Torah, immersed in the land, and especially during the Three Weeks, did my best to focus on the gap between exile and redemption. During this time period, when I sang those slow inspirational songs, I think I truly mourned the lack of the Beis Hamikdash – as well as any eighteen-year-old can two thousand years after its destruction.
Today, I’m an overworked and underpaid mother of four who tends to feel pretty clueless about the whole endeavor. As I sang to my daughter about the comfortable clarity of day and the dark uncertainty of night, and the “goodness” of giving thanks and relying on G-d’s kindness through it all, I wasn’t thinking about exile or redemption. Alongside the rush of memories, I was thinking about my kids, about a particular challenge that had arisen just that day and that I wasn’t sure how to navigate it. In my life today, that’s the sort of “darkness,” of uncertainty and the need for faith, that I can relate to.
Sometimes, I think, we have a tendency to criticize ourselves for being too caught up in our lives to focus on bigger things. It seems petty, maybe, to daven for an “A” on a test when there are people starving. It seems less spiritual, maybe, to be caught up in the day to day challenges of our lives and lose sight of our national mourning for the Beis Hamikdash and longing for Mashiach. But we need all those things; they all matter to us, in their way. And at different moments of our lives, we may well be overwhelmed by one more than another, even if it seems minor in objective comparison.
It might seem less spiritual, even fake, to get caught up in an experience shared with humans, or in human memories, when singing holy words. But we need that sometimes, to simply feel connected to other people or an experience.
And sometimes, one is the path to the other. If I can master crying out to G-d for an “A,” maybe I can progress to crying out to Him for guidance in helping others. If I can become immersed in an experience with other people through words of Torah and a tune that tugs my heartstrings, maybe I can build on that sense of connection and build a deeper connection with G-d, too.
And maybe, I can simply create memories for my children like my own memories. Memories that center on words of Torah, and on togetherness.
The time may come when I can once again really mourn for the Beis Hamikdash. (Though let’s hope it’s built even before that time comes!) But for now, I’m immersed in other things, and those are important too.
After all, what could be bad about cuddling with my daughter and singing about thanking Hashem, even if it’s kind of dark and I’m not sure of my next step in either relationship?
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.