Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern
What Makes a Jewish Song Jewish?¹
In discussing the theme of this sermon, “What Makes a Jewish Song Jewish?,” I speak as a rabbi, not as a musician or connoisseur of the arts. I believe that in addition to the artistic qualities of a song, or any work of art, there are also certain ethical or moral or religious matters which contribute to its greatness and Jewishness. This week, Shabbat Shira – the Sabbath on which the Song of Moses is read – is an opportune time to delve into those other-than-technical matters which make songs like Az Yashir great and Jewish.
There are three prerequisites for, or pragmatic tests of, a great Jewish song. The first two of these are universal; that is, they are the marks of greatness which distinguish any truly superior song or chant. The third is the particularly Jewish aspect. And it is the three of these, taken together, which make for a song such as Az Yashir, which is both great from a universal point of view, and invaluably holy from a Jewish point of view.
The first requirement is that it have meaning for all times. It must be as appropriate for any future generation as it is for the one in which it was written. It must outgrow local character and provincial significance and overflow into the stream of time, the stream of eternity. For a truly great song to be immortal, it must be eternal. The phrase “az yashir,” “Then they sang” (Exodus 15:1) is interpreted by the Midrash Tanĥuma (Beshalaĥ 13) as meaning that they sang so that future generations would sing – “le’atid” – a song for all time to come. It is a song which will be as valid for this century as it was for 3,000 years before this century. Do we not repeat the Az Yashir daily? Do we not read it from the Torah twice every year? You see, this song was not restricted to particular events and was not circumscribed by definite personalities – in essence it transcends all these. For, as the song of liberation, sung after the Exodus from Egypt, it is the hymn of freedom for all time, the eternal anthem of the Jew which commemorates and references the beginning of his history. And even more than historical or political motifs were here detected by the Jewish mystics. They saw in it, too, a song of the liberation of the soul from the Egyptian qualities of man which drag it down. Every man must leave his own Egypt and must sing of this Exodus proudly and sweetly. If a man be dragged down to misery because he is by nature vindictive, then vindictiveness is his Egypt in which his soul is in exile. If he can overpower that banal quality, then he has personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt, and though he lives in the year 5712, he must sing an Az Yashir, the song of liberation from an Egypt all his own. So then, Az Yashir from the historical point of view and from the personal aspect, is a song with as much meaning for our day and every day as it was when it was first composed. Its overtones have not been silenced, and it is, in this way, indicative of the first important quality of a great song – value for all time, the power to survive the vicissitudes of ages in which values and ideas change ever so severely.
The second important characteristic of a great Jewish song is that, more than being repeated by future generations, it must also be able to inspire them. It is sometimes possible to read an ancient text and find meaning in it, without necessarily being inspired by it. A great song, however, is more than a curiosity lifted out of the musical notes of an age gone by. Th e musical overtones of a great song must not only be heard by some future generation, it must drive it and fire it and detonate it. It must contain the power to awaken men from their spiritual slumber. “Song” in a Jewish sense is more than a melodious combination of sounds. It is a song that can stir a person to create a response. It is that song which can, even centuries later, cause people to change themselves. It must be eternal and eﬀective. Furthermore, a great song can inspire only by getting those who hear it to finish it. Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” has challenged men for many years – challenged them to finish it and complete it and perfect it. In a similar vein, every great song is an unfinished song. The listener must finish it by a soul-stirring response. After listening passively, he must digest actively and create a noble reaction of his soul. Emotionally and intellectually, he must complete a great song by changing himself. A great song, any great work of art, is great because it elicits a reaction – and that is the secret of its powers of inspiration. Th e crescendo or climax is internal.
Our Rabbis (Sanhedrin 91b) saw the kernel of this idea, this second standard for a great Jewish song, in the first two words of Moses’ lofty song by the Sea. “Amar Rabbi Meir, minayin leteĥiyat hameitim min haTorah? Shene’emar ‘az yashir.’ ‘Shar’ lo ne’emar, ela ‘yashir.’” Idiomatic or poetic Hebrew, in its biblical construction, writes “az yashir,” “then [Moses and Israel] will sing,” not, as it should be, “az shar,” “they did sing.” From this unusual grammatical construction, Rabbi Meir deduces a principle of faith – the Resurrection of the Dead. Since Moses will sing in the future, that must mean he will first be resurrected. Of course, what Rabbi Meir meant was more than proof of resurrection from the Song of Moses. He meant, too, proof of the quality of the song from the fact of resurrection. Where⋅from does Az Yashir derive its sublime and ethereal powers? From teĥiyat hameitim, from the resurrection of the dead – because it has the power to breathe the breath of life into dead souls. A great song must be able to penetrate the heart of man, get within the dead tinder wood and driftwood piled up about his heart and set them afire. Th e dead souls and slumbering spirits must be resurrected, revivified. Only that song is worthy of Moses and Israel, who can, millennia later, kindle the flame of faith in men and women to the point where they rise unanimously and proclaim for a lifetime “mi khamokha baEilim Hashem, mi kamokha ne’edar bakodesh,” “who is like You among the mighty, Hashem, who is like You, glorious in Holiness” (Exodus 15:11).Only such a song is deserving of the epithet “great” – that which can galvanize an apathetic people to resurrect its homeland and proclaim “tevi’eimo vetita’emo behar naĥalatkha,” that the time has come when Jews, slumbering in resignation, will arise to rebuild the Promised Land. The song of the Exodus of Egypt has been re-sung, finished, in our own day, by those who participated in the exodus of Europe. Certainly, a great song must be able to eﬀect teĥiyat hameitim – the resurrection of the indolent, slothful, languid souls. Our Rabbis (Sanhedrin 92b) even say that the dead who were resurrected in Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones (ch. 37) also “amru shira,” sang a song in that same vision. For their resurrection was proof of the quality of the Song of Hope of all Jews for all time.
Take, for instance, a modern song which has gained prominence among Jews in recent years. It is a song of the ghetto, the Song of Hope of those doomed to crematoria and gas chambers – “Ani Ma’amin” – I believe, in perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah, in the imminent redemption of Israel. Do you remember how that song gained its fame? It was reported in the press during the war – emaciated Jews, while being led to a crematorium in a cattle truck, were singing a haunting melody, whose words, strangely, expressed an irrational hope in the Messiah, in a better life and a fresh hope. Was that a new song? Indeed not. The melody, perhaps, was new. The words are ancient. They were written eight centuries ago by Moses Maimonides, who himself had to travel over the entire Near and Middle East as an exile from his home. So, on this count, then, “Ani Ma’amin” is a great song. For, more than lasting into the future, it quickened the spirits of men. And even more than becoming an instrument which infused life into desperate, dying souls, it gave them the courage to defy death to its teeth.
But there is yet a third requirement for a Jewish song, and this is the critically Jewish element; it is this which makes a Jewish song Jewish. And that is, that this song, which has meaning for the future, and which can inspire men in the future, must be able to inspire them toward specific goals. Specifically, it must be able to shock them into an awareness of God, it must be able to electrify them into the sort of introspection which leads to great religious achievement. In a word, it must lead to teshuva, repentance. If a song has moved people to repent and towards a new understanding and new practice of Jewishness, then it has proved its basic Jewishness. After all, what is Az Yashir if not a tribute to the omnipotence of the Almighty God, and hence an imperative to do immediate penance?
The Hasidim used to picture the spiritual world as a great divine palace someplace in heaven and in this symbolic structure all concepts were represented as diﬀerent rooms or gates. By placing one room or gate next to another, the Hasidim were able to present their view of the relation of diﬀerent ideas. And these Hasidim, who, as you no doubt know, were great believers in singing and happiness and sanguineness, assigned the Sha’ar HaNegina, the Gate of Song, right next to one of the most important gates in the entire palace, the Sha’ar HaTeshuva (quoted in the name of Rabbi Israel of Modzitz). Now, what did they mean by that? They meant, simply, that the function of song is that it must open for you the Gates of Penitence. No song is a divine song unless its vibrations can cause a little explosion in the inner chambers of teshuva. From the Gate of True Song, you must be able to walk right in through the Gates of Penitence.
The shofar is the oldest and most venerated of Jewish musical instruments. It is as ancient as the Jewish people. Yet it has survived the test of time, and is sounded faithfully every year. It thus fulfills the first requirement. It inspires people – let each of you testify to that yourself. That meets the second test. And it fulfills the third requirement by urging people on to teshuva. Listen to Maimonides as he describes the meaning of the song of the shofar (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4): “uru yesheinim mishinatkhem,” “Wake up, ye who sleep, from your sleep; and arise, ye who slumber, from your slumber. Search your ways, return in penitence and remember your Creator. Ye who forget the truth in the vanities of time, and waste their years in nonsense which is of no avail, look deep into your souls and do good henceforth.” So, then, the song of the shofar is a great Jewish song.
And according to these three standards, my friends, if we will but forget the technical element of music and permit ourselves the privilege of subtraction, then even a word can qualify as a great Jewish song. Even a hand placed encouragingly on the shoulder of a faltering friend can be a great Jewish song. An exemplary life can be a great Jewish song. Anything beautiful, in short, that can fulfill these three requirements, is a great Jewish song.
A rebuke, for instance, can qualify. The Torah records as a special commandment, “hokhei’aĥ tokhiaĥ et amitekha,” “thou shalt rebuke thy fellow” (Leviticus 19:17). Th at is, if your friend errs and veers from the right path, you must reproach him. Now, reproach can be administered in many ways – some very crude and vulgar. But that great ethical thinker, Rabbenu Yonah, gives us the prescription for the correct type of rebuke (Commentary on Avot 4:12). “Don’t tell the wrongdoer,” says Rabbenu Yonah, “‘now look, you are a horrible sinner and will pay for your sins,’” but rather say, “‘now I think that you are a wonderful fellow, you are a pious man but you don’t know it. Of course you have weaknesses, but a man of your stature will certainly overcome them.’” Here is a rebuke which is a Jewish song! It will live with that wrong-doer for many a year. It will inspire him – he will himself finish that rebuke and, while mulling over your words, tell himself what you dared not tell him. And those words will most certainly be as eﬀective as can be in directing him to teshuva, a new and fresh outlook upon life.
The great Jewish songs of all ages, those which conform to the standards and criteria we outlined, shall never be silenced. And the first Jewish song, the Song of Moses and the Israelites by the shores of the Red Sea, the song concluding with “Hashem yimlokh le’olam va’ed,” the eternal reign of God, shall itself be eternally re-sung by all Jews. The echoes of the Song of Moses resound in the chambers of the Jewish soul and pluck its heartstrings forever. All Jews, themselves finishing that song, must rise to new heights, and gain entry into the coveted and lofty Gates of Penitence.
- February 9, 1952