Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
We’ve arrived at the last weekly parashah of the first book of the Torah: the book of Creation, of beginnings, of the kind of stories that are meant to answer the essential questions. How did the world come into existence? How did you and I? How did the Jews become a people? and less happy questions as well, such as Why do people kill each other? The stories of Genesis are Mythical in their necessity. We want to know how and why our existence follows certain paths, with choices and eventualities we might not have chosen ourselves had we the choice, and way too much pain besides.
This week we are reading nearly the entirety of the next to last chapter in the Book Bereshit (Genesis), chapter 49. The entire chapter consists of Jacob’s final words, which have come down to us in the form of what is often understood as the blessing of the twelve tribes in the persons of their eponymous ancestors. Although the text does not say so, Jacob probably spoke in song, just as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Rabbi, his traditional appellation) will sing as he takes his leave of his people, and life, on the other end of the Torah. There, at the end of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the Torah will call Moshe’s final words a song.
When we look closely, we see that Jacob’s last song is not exactly a blessing. It is more a declaration of character of each of the twelve sons who become progenitors of tribes. It is also, of course, a description of the tribes as our tradition knows them (and in that way we can understand retrojected elements that are clearly not contemporary). It is a complex song, full of Jacob’s feelings about his sons, and so it expresses chagrin and pride, love and resignation. It’s not an easy song to hear – but it is honest.
What makes a good song? In an opera or musical, the best songs are not simple in subject matter; and often, the most beautiful songs include harmonies, different voices pitched in different ranges and even rhythms. A good song is just a cacophony if it is mistimed, or when the singers are not in sync with each other – but a good song sounds like a miracle of beauty when everything comes together just so. The same is true of a good music jam session – musicians sensitive to each other, each contributing, each welcoming of the other’s contribution.
A community’s expression of itself is similar. We sing a song that belongs to each of us but also to all of us, each of us in our own way. It’s not always an easy song: we clash sometimes. Someone’s voice is not in sync, someone gets outsung (or does the outsinging!), someone’s timing is well-meant but not so good….
The song that Jews sing in community is full of life: disagreements, good and bad days, pain, happiness, grief, pleasure, impatience, and much more. Just look at our Talmud and the rest of rabbinic literature.
The author of the halakhic (legal) code Arukh haShulkhan, Rabbi Yekhiel Epstein, points out that those same rabbis who argued all day long about the finer and larger points of law also insisted that eylu v’eylu divre Elokim Hayim, “these AND these are the words of the living G-d”. (Hoshen Mishpat, Introduction). And “this is one of the reasons the Torah is called ‘a song’ – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.” (From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Torah as G-d’s Song).
A good congregational song is not always pretty. That is, if it is a good song, because a good song is honest. Like Jacob’s final song, it has dramatic curves, flashes of pain as well as happiness, and the occasional diva. A good song is one that helps us explore our Torah inheritance, to speak our personal truths and learn our community truths from each other. It’s a process that, over time, offers us the opportunity not only to make beautiful Jewish music together, but to fulfill our obligation to find our voice in the harmonious song of Torah that only we can make together.