The Importance of Melody in the Journey of Teshuva during the High Holidays

The Importance of Melody in the Journey of Teshuva during the High Holidays

Pnina OmerPnina Omer is the director of OTS’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center & Hotline

The journey of teshuva – repenting and finding forgiveness – during the High Holy Days stands upon three pillars: time, words, and melodies.  

The 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul (the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul) and Yom Kippur are days intended for gradual spiritual preparation which takes place over a period of time through prayers and melodies.  At the end of this journey in the quest for teshuva, the catharsis comes in the form of Tefillat Ne’ila, the closing prayer of Yom Kippur.  When the shofar is blown at the end, one cannot help but feel a sense of release, as though one has been filled with a burst of fresh air ahead of the New Year. 

Truth be told, the melodies of the High Holy Days start reverberating in me weeks before the Holidays begin.  Studies show that music directly affects our brains.  It even has powerful therapeutic traits, and affects us both emotionally and physically, sometimes even impacting the pace of our heartbeat.  A melody can arouse memories, and bring to life age-old images and feelings.  It plays on the strings of our hearts, and with the sweep of a conductor’s baton, it arouses us in ways over which we have no control.  Moreover, musical memory is exceptionally durable.  

I was further astonished to discover that singing in a choir, in particular, enhances a sense of belonging and motivation.  This fact left me wondering whether the act of singing the prayers out loud as a congregation is the biggest catalyst in our quest for teshuva.  

I close my eyes and become one with the congregation in the synagogue, as we all sing together the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Yud Gimmel Midot), which is the very heartbeat of the prayers.

“The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and clearing guilt…”  The minute the chorus sounds, I can feel God himself enveloping me with great mercy, and my heart yearns to connect with the Kind and Merciful One.  For me, this is a moment of great spiritual elevation, when all boundaries disappear; a moment that enables me to stand exposed and frail but ready to set forth on an introspective journey which takes place during these specific days.  However, this moment begins long weeks before the New Year is born.

As the days of Elul draw near, the melodies in my head come to life, and arouse the heart as well. The melody sung to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy starts humming in my brain like a stubborn, repetitive “earworm”, time and time again for 40 days at least.  

This is what makes the journey of the High Holy Days so great – the quest for teshuva is intertwined with time, words and melodies.  

But what happens when one of these three pillars is removed? 

Once, some 24 years ago, I got lost on my journey of teshuva.  I was a young woman at the time, recently married, and for the first time in my life I had left my parents’ home and went to pray in a synagogue which was as different as could be from the synagogue I was used to.

On Rosh Hashana, I arrived at the Sephardi synagogue with my husband, born to parents who were natives of Morocco and Algeria.  The day was holy; the words stared at me from the prayer book, but where were the melodies?  I stood there in the synagogue shell shocked and lost.  It was as though I was deprived of my journey; my High Holy Day experience was taken from me.  

I cannot even begin to describe how detached I felt that year.  I went straight home to the festive holiday table from the prayer service, but I felt no elevation of spirit, nor any feeling of festivity. The day had lost its joy.  I cried with longing for my melody.  

The melodies of the High Holy Days take me on a journey through time; they open chambers of my heart I didn’t even know existed; they play on the strings of my soul.

Melodies are paramount.  In his guidelines for cantors published in 1910, Pesach Minkovsky warns cantors that “traditional tunes must be preserved at all cost because only they can unite us, in whichever synagogue we may be.”  He also adds another warning and says that “a singer who is not completely familiar with all the traditional tunes sung during the prayer service, should not be recommended to serve as the cantor of the congregation.”

It goes without saying that the world is not limited to Minkovsky’s nusach (prayer melodies), but there is no doubt he knew well the value of melody:  the particular prayer melodies we grow up with stay with us until adulthood and evoke the journey of teshuva, the yearning for repentance.  Without our melodies, we feel incomplete.  

Years have elapsed, and I am older now.  I have visited the Sephardi synagogue many times since, and the Sephardi melodies have become my own.  The melody sung to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy still plays in my head when the month of Tishrei bears the smells of Autumn air, but I have made room in my heart for new melodies as well. I have opened my inner chambers to other voices, and have built a layer of new memories.  Melodies from my childhood reverberate alongside those from his childhood, and together they form the foundations of the home we have built together.  All these melodies make up the woman I have grown to be.  

This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782

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