07/24/2009 - The Universal Language


July 24, 2009

3 Av 5769


This sermon was prepared with the hopes that we would be at Ravinia, preparing to listen to Gershwin and Bernstein. Alas, it is not to be. Let's imagine, however, that we are going to experience beautiful music later tonight. One of the Torah's most intriguing stories is the Tower of Babel. Found in the book of Genesis, it tells of the human attempt to create a ladder from earth to heaven. We learn that the leaders of humanity had learned to produce bricks. With this new power, they gather in the city of Shinar and decide to build a tower to Heaven. What allowed them to work together was that they shared a common language.

God got wind of their project and became concerned. According to the midrash, God was fearful that they might climb the ladder and storm the heavens. So God decided to stop their project. How? By confusing their languages. Instead of one language, they would have many hundreds of them. The word babble—describing talk we don't understand--is derived from this story.

Now many scholars look at this story as etiological--way for the ancients to explain why people speak different languages. Yet, if we think carefully, we realize there is still one universal language: the language of music.

Music is the language of the spirit. It communicates emotions and feelings in ways spoken languages cannot. In a sense, music is like faith. The feelings it generates cannot always be explained logically. Yet, they are true and powerful. Sometimes, music can convey a power that nothing else can. It speaks to a part of us that ordinary language does not. I remember once making a pastoral visit to a hospital. It was a man I knew just a little bit. He could barely speak or communicate. His wife was in the room. We chatted for a while. Then I asked if he would like me to say a prayer. I said the shema and the misheberach. Then as I was getting ready to leave, he said something to his wife that I couldn't understand. She leaned in to listen more closely, and he said it again. She then said to me—his favorite prayer was the avinu malkanu. The one from Rosh Hashanah. Can you sing it for him? Surprised, and a bit embarrassed, I did my best to sing the majestic piece by Max Janowski, and as I did so, tears rolled out of his eyes. Music touched a part of the soul that ordinary prayer could not. This is true not just for those who are ill, but for all of us. Would Yom Kippur be the same without hearing the Kol Nidre? Would Rosh Hashanah be the same without the sound of the shofar?

Music is also like faith in that it both brings us together and speaks to us as individuals. Consider a concert hall and performance. We are all listening to the same music. Yet, in each of our minds and hearts, something unique is happening. For some of us, the music might evoke a memory or a particular experience. For others, the music might bring a moment of joy in a difficult time. For others, it might confront them intellectually, touching parts of the brains words cannot. For others, the music might simply be relaxing. We hear the same music, but we experience it differently.

The same is true with worship. Each of us is listening to and saying the same words. We are hearing the same melodies. We are hearing the same sermon. Yet, our minds and hearts are wandering in a variety of directions. Some might take this opportunity to fall asleep. Others might feel stimulated and inspired. Others, hopefully, will be enlightened. We pray as a community, and we experience as individuals.

There is a final aspect of synchronicity between music and faith. Both are universal, yet both are optional. What do I mean by this? Every culture has a system of belief or religious practice. Religion, in fact, can be seen as a cultural system. Every culture, as I far as I know, also has some form of music. Yet, every individual does not have faith or a love of music. Many people come to me and say they don't have a sense of faith or belief in God. This issue is a complicated one, and in many cases, I find that people do have a sense of faith but it does not fit into traditional categories.

Yet, it is true that we can go through life without every praying or attending a worship service or feeling that our lives are connected to a purpose higher than ourselves. We can do so and be moral and good people. Contrary to the views of religious fundamentalists, religion and morality are not the same thing. Yet, we can also go through life without hearing a Beethoven symphony. We can go through life without hearing Gershwin and Bernstein. We can go through life without reading Shakespeare. But our lives would surely be the poorer for having done so. I think the same is true for faith. We can through life without joining a synagogue or coming to worship or studying Torah. Yet, how much richer are lives are when we do so. Judaism, faith, prayer can enrich our lives immeasurably. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, "Faith encodes the long experience of humanity as it has sought to understand and respond to the mystery of existence. It helps us to live better, more generously, with less fear and more delight that we might otherwise have done. It teaches us to construct environments that honor the human spirit. It helps us to develop an appetite for life, to cherish the miracle of being, to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty. Perhaps that is its secret, its wisdom and its gift. Faith teaches us to make a blessing over life.” And with beautiful music, that blessing sounds even better.


Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.