The Divine Harmony of the Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva

LaMinatzayach, proclaims King David, introducing no less than 55 of his Psalms with the dedication, to the Conductor.  And who is this Conductor to whom Dovid dedicates his songs of praise?  Rashi identifies him as the Levi who serves in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The sages identify the Conductor as the Almighty Himself (Pesachim 119a).


Yet we need not find these interpretations contradictory.  For is it not the Master of the World who arranges and directs every movement in the great orchestra of Creation?  And was it not the Leviim who sat upon the 15 steps leading into the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, composing and rendering melodies for the 15 Shir HaMa’alos of Dovid’s Tehillim?  Indeed, it is these 15 very songs that symbolize the ascension of the Jewish people, who are compared to the moon, which waxes through the first 15 days of the month until it shines full in the sky. 


Finally, who better to dedicate songs of praise to HaShem and to His master musicians than Dovid HaMelech, the “sweet singer of Israel”?  (2 Shmuel 23:1)


Both Dovid and the Leviim shared the understanding that words of praise alone are inadequate unless accompanied by music.  But what is this power of niggun – melody – which restored prophecy to Elisha at the moment of his anger and despair, which merited Serach bas Asher eternal life for singing words of comfort to her grandfather, Yaakov Avinu, and for which Navos HaYizr’eli merited death for withholding his incomparably beautiful voice from the Levitical choir?


I will solve my riddle with the harp, says Dovid (Tehillim 49:5).  HaShem created the world with seven heavenly emanations, or sefiros, beginning with the three fundamental qualities of the patriarchs – chesed (kindness), gevurah (inner strength), and tiferes (splendor) – and culminating in malchus (kingship).  This pattern asserts itself through the sights and sounds of Creation:  visible light refracts into seven colors with three primary bands (red, blue, and yellow), while audible sound divides into the seven notes of the scale with three primaries forming the major musical triad (C, E, and G).  And just as the integration of the colors of the spectrum produces pure white light, the successful integration of sound produces perfect harmony.  The seventh sefirah, kingship, corresponds to Dovid, founder of the messianic dynasty and “sweet singer of Israel.”


What is harmony?  If every musician in the orchestra were to play continuously at full volume, the resulting cacophony would offer no more esthetic pleasure than the horn-blowing of rush-hour traffic.  Inspired musical arrangement, however, with some instruments contributing more and some less, some loud and some restrained, produces a symphonic masterpiece that touches the soul in a way beyond words, beyond pictures, beyond thought.


Just as the foul odor of the chelbanah, the galbanum, contributed to the transcendent fragrance of the incense offering when mixed together with other spices, an otherwise uninspiring note may produce the most exquisite harmony when it completes a perfect chord.  Both are allegories for HaShem’s multifaceted world, in which seemingly purposeless or corrosive elements play an indispensable role in the workings of nature and society.  More than any other medium, music enables us recognize the hand of the Creator in the unfathomable intricacies of creation and teaches us to relinquish the primacy of our own desires for a more subtle contribution to the spiritual harmony of the universe.


Set to music, words of praise acquire a power far beyond their simple verbal meaning.  And so we see that, as they passed through the sea to escape Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jewish people found no greater expression of praise and thanksgiving than singing to HaShem.  In the same way, Devorah sang her praises for the victory over Sisera, Chanah sang her gratitude for the birth of her son, Shmuel, and Dovid sang his appreciation for the establishment of his kingdom.  Tragically, because Chizkyahu merely recited the verses of Hallel rather than arranging them into notes of Shira, he merited only salvation from the army of the Assyrian king Sancheriv but failed to fulfill his destiny of becoming Moshiach.


Such was the musical exultation of Sukkos in the Beis HaMikdash that one who has not witnessed the celebration of the Beis HaSho’eivah (the water-drawing ceremony) has never seen true joy.  The Talmud describes the drawing of water from the spring of Shiloach in preparation for the nisuch haMayim, the water libation of the Sukkos Festival:  the people would dance and sing in the courtyard, holding torches in their hands, while the Leviim would stand below on the 15 steps leading from the ezras Yisroel to the ezras nashim … playing their harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets, and other instruments, singing songs of praise throughout the night (Sukkos 51a). 


Elyahu Kitov explains that, over the course of the year, the evil inclination blinds us with pride and desire, separating us from HaShem and from one another, sowing discord and disharmony among the Jewish people.  But with our collective repentance on Yom Kippur, we acquire the opportunity to recover our national unity and return to spiritual purity.  Having thus freed ourselves from the dominion of the yeitzer hara, we come under the wings of the Divine Presence as we enter the sukkah, demonstrate our renewed commitment to Klal Yisroel by taking the arba minim (the Four Species), and pour water upon the altar to symbolize our untarnished return to the service of HaShem.


As we celebrate our spiritual renewal, the sweet harmonies of the Leviim echo the harmony between each Jew and his fellow, between each Jew and his Creator.  Awake, my glory! declares Dovid.  Awake, O harp and lyre!  I will awaken the dawn (Tehillim 57:9).  The instrumental harmony of the Leviim inspires the inner harmony of the soul and the cosmic harmony of the heavens in a joyous celebration unparalleled in human experience.


In recent generations, musical expression has become associated with the niggunim of the Chassidic masters of Europe.  And indeed, it was the early Chassidic movement that resurrected both musical harmony and the joy of divine service from a painful dormancy.


Ivdu es HaShem b’simcha, boyu l’fonov bir’nonoh, proclaimed Dovid in his Tehillim, Serve HaShem with gladness, come before Him with joyous song (ibid. 100:2).  In the days following the depression and disillusionment of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi, the rabbinic leaders of Europe suppressed expressions of emotion, fearing that unbridled enthusiasm might give rise to similar charlatans who would again shatter the hopes of the Jewish people.  Instead, they admonished their communities to seek HaShem through Torah study and meticulous halachic observance.


Such a formula may have proven successful for the few who were scholars.  But for the average Jew of modest education, Jewish life devolved into a monotony of uninspired routine.  True, Jews might be protected from false hope, but they found little genuine hope in their joyless lives.


It was the radiant light of chassidus that dispelled their spiritual darkness.  Teaching that even the most poorly educated Jew can attain divine intimacy through prayer and song, the Ba’al Shem Tov founded the Chassidic movement and reawakened the soul of the Jewish people, restoring spiritual harmony through the harmonies of Lecha Dodi, Keil Adon, the plunging, soaring niggunim of the rebbe’s tisch, and the quiet intensity of the kumsitz.


And so, as we greet each new day, as we enter into each new season, let us sing with the same passion as the Leviim in the Temple:  Awake, my glory!  Awake, O harp and lyre!  I will awaken the dawn.

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