Archive for Music

The Power of Music

       I am going to quote, out of all things, a Bugs Bunny episode. “How crude” you probably think, “this is some sophisticated publication with the cup of coffee picture and all that!!” Well, sorry to disappoint you….so bring out the loony tunes!!
       For many years I thought Bugs Bunny contained some MUSSAR HASKEL -great wisdom, however, I was misled. Although there is some truth to it, by no means is it foolproof. As a matter of fact, what I am going to reveal here in this newsletter is quite the opposite of what the popular belief is.
       Our hero, Bugs Bunny, is being chased by a ferocious gorilla. But the smart bunny gets his way, as usual, and out wits the gorilla by calming him down playing soothing music in front of him. He even, by the end of the episode, enlists the big great ape to work for him. This is all done by playing the soothing music. The moral of the story: “music calms the savage beast” Well, sorry, but not exactly.
       Over the years there were a great many debate in Israel (aren’t there always great debates in Israel!) about whether the music of the classical composer Richard Wagner should be played or not. Wagner was a well known anti-Semite. His music and philosophy fueled and motivated Hitler, the German dictator, who attempted to annihilate the Jewish nation.
       On May 10 2013, a disturbing article was published in the New York Times. The article pertains to Wagner as the Wagner followers are commemorating 200 year anniversary of his death. Here are excerpts of the article:
       “This year the news magazine, Der Spiegel, featured a picture on its front cover of the composer [Wagner] holding a fire-breathing dragon on his lap with the words “200 Years of Richard Wagner: The Mad Genius”. For many, Wagner has come to symbolize the seeds of anti-Semitic sentiment in German culture that would grow into the Nazi terror.”


       “A cascade of boos during Saturday’s opening night performance turned into a flood of complaints about scenes of shootings and gassing.
It is not uncommon for stage productions in Germany to incorporate totalitarian themes, as the country continues to examine its troubled 20th-century past. According to news media reports, the opera showed the title character dressed as a concentration camp guard shooting Jewish prisoners. The opera’s statement said that distraught audience members even sought medical attention after watching the depictions of executions” the article continued.


       “The director, Burkhard C. Kosminski, declined to make changes to soften the impact of the violence. He told the newspaper Westdeutsche Zeitung that he had been completely transparent with the opera house about his intent for the production and that he was not a “scandal director.”‘

       Some very interesting lessons can be derived from the actual article quoted by the New York Times, published in Der Spiegel, which was written by Dirk Kurbjuweit. Here is a translation of an excerpt:


       “The composer still casts a dark shadow today. Music and the Holocaust come together in that shadow: one of the most beautiful things created by man, and one of the worst things human beings have done. Wagner, the mad genius, was more than a composer. He also influenced Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, even though he was already dead when the 12-year-old Hitler heard his music live for the first time when he attended a production of “Lohengrin” in the Austrian city of Linz in 1901. Describing the experience, during which he stood in a standing-room only section of the theater, Hitler wrote: “I was captivated immediately”.
       Many feel the same way as well. They listen to Wagner and are captivated, overwhelmed, smitten and delighted. Wagner’s hateful essay “Judaism in Music” offered Hitler an idea of how far one could go with anti-Semitism. The composer invoked the downfall of the Jews. To quote Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, “Richard Wagner taught us what the Jew is.”


       Our Sages teach us to never underestimate the power of music.
Is it possible that Wagner’s anti- Semitic feeling penetrated the souls of the Third Reich through his music?
If that’s true, then music doesn’t really calm the savage beast
       Let us examine the one person who embodied the concept of music and wrote the masterpiece work, Tehilim -Psalms, which is the root of many songs, King David.
Why is Tehilim so important?
Why do we read Tehilim in times of trouble or when people are sick?
Why do some psalms start with LEDAVID MIZMORE -for David a song, while others start off with MIZMORE LEDAVID – a song for David?
       There are four ways one can connect to G-d. One way is through “thought”. Meditation, which if one does intensely through thought, is a prime means of reaching a high level of spirituality. By the way, concentrating on breathing is a big part of meditation. “G-d blew into mans nostrils” ( Bereshit 2:8). One can achieve superior feeling with breathing exercises.
       Another way to connect to G-d is through speech. Speech is a very powerful tool that each man possesses. The optimal way of prayer is through using words. By constructing the 22 Hebrew letters forming words and pronouncing them properly and correctly, one then is able to pave a direct link  to the Heavens. The Sages have cleverly constructed the prayers in the most optimal way. It is vital that one say every word clearly, thereby preserving the formula, structure and sequence.
       The third way is through raising your voice, which is screaming or sighing. We know that G-d heard the screams of the Jews in Egypt and after 210 years, opened the door to freedom for them. Because of their suffering, they were not able to express themselves verbally, merely sighing and crying. This was deliberately orchestrated by the enemy, working them to an exhaustive level until the point that words couldn’t come out, because they knew the power of the Jew is in his speech. Words have power. However, through an emotional sigh one can communicate with G-d as well.
The last is through music.
       In this week Parsha we discuss the Levites and their task in the Temple. One of their tasks was to sing. The sages ask, was the commandment to sing verbally or perhaps they hummed a tune? ( playing an instrument would fall in that category) Arguments can be made for both approaches.
       Speech is a gift and when the words are mixed with music, it becomes a potent weapon. As a mater of fact, this is why we sing in Synagogue.  The Chazzan is there to lead the congregation and entice them to sing along. SHIR is song and the root of SHIR is YASHAR -straight. In other words, if one sings his prayers properly, they will go straight to Heaven. The words give the prayers direction.
        However, some argue that a NIGUN -tune without word, is a higher level. Words constrict and limit the concept. It doesn’t fully express what’s in the heart. A NIGUN’s -tune’s capability is unlimited; only the sky is the limit.
        At some of the  Chassidim’s  happy occasions, one leads the crowd in a tune with no words. It’s an uplifting and amazing experience. A NIGGUN  is special in that every person in this universe is different. There are no words for our mixed emotions, and so when we sing a song together, our individual experiences get expressed in a unified way. We understand that the song connects us even when our individual stories may be somewhat different. Music transcends language. Perhaps that is why mothers sing to their babies and babies respond and connect positively to their mothers.
       Music uplifts the soul. The Mystics say that the reason music is so heavenly is because it actually does come from Heaven. It comes from the highest level of heaven “seventh heaven”. There, the Angels sing to G-d and one has to be privileged to be invited to the concert.
       Music can either come from a holy source or from evil. It trickles down to us and we feel good and react accordingly depending on the source.
 Since music is an expression of the heart, one has to be careful what he hears, as music easily transcends from soul to soul. An evil person transfers his negativity through his music.
The purpose of music
       King David was tested many, many times. He had a very difficult life. However, David persevered and was able to connect to G-d through music.Every time David went through an experience, whether good or bad, he wrote TEHILIM -Psalms. Here, David showed his love, appreciation and confidence in G-d. Tehilim screams out to G-d and proclaims that what ever happens, I believe in you. This is the reason why David was a favorite of G-d. When we read Tehilim, we connect with G-d just like David did.
       A person has many moods which are triggered by the occurrences in his life. David is no different. However, if one wants to reachRUACH HAKODESH- Divine spirituality, one has to be happy. Music makes a person happy.
        In Tractate Pesachim 117a, the Gemarah teaches us that when it says in Tehilim MIZMOR LEH DAVID, it means David had to first listen to music in order to get his spirits up and be happy. He then was able to reach Divine spirituality. When it says LEH DAVID MIZMOR,  it means that the Divine inspiration came to David first before he sang.
       This was the Levites task. Their job was to lift the spirits of the Kohanim doing their important work and lift the spirits of the people through singing. Then they can reach greater spirituality. We sing in Synagogue just like the Levites did to raise the level of happiness so our prayers will be accepted.
Does music calm the savage beast?
It only calms the beast when the composer of the music is a good person.