I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor on Shabbat Parashat Terumah 9 years ago. It remains one of my favorite sermons and the congregational singing after the sermon remains, for me, one of the most moving moments I have experienced from the Bima.
THE MUSIC THAT ELEVATES US
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin
February 1, 2014
Rosh Hodesh Adar
Today’s Torah portion is called Terumah. The terumah was a contribution, given from the heart, in this case for the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert. The word terumah comes from the Hebrew word lihareem, to lift up. But what is the connection between this contribution and the word meaning “to lift up”?
Rashi notes simply that terumah means hafrasha, separation, separating these items from the rest of one’s property. In fact, there are those who say that the donor physically lifted up the object being contributed to show that it had been designated for a sacred cause.
As the Etz Hayim Hummash points out, there is a spiritual element to this elevation as well. The commentary quotes the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev as saying that a person is elevated, is lifted up, by giving such a gift. So, the “terumah”, the lifting up, could refer to both the object and the donor.
But, it is also true that such elevation can be contagious. When a person sees another person contributing something and being inspired by that act, they themselves would be lifted up, encouraged and inspired to do the same. So, the process of elevation can take many different forms.
Earlier this morning, we sang the Hallel service, psalms of Praise to God in recognition of the beginning of the new month of Adar. We lifted up our voices in song. No matter how many times we sing the Hallel, these inspiring words lift us to different places in our spiritual lives and hopefully inspire us to act in our lives on those values which our tradition teaches. That inspiration can be contagious as all who hear the voices raised in song are inspired themselves.
There are many sources of inspiration in our world and music is one of the most enduring. Listening to favorite music, whether a classical symphony, jazz, rock, whatever we find moving, can bring us to a different and a higher place, can elevate us in unique and lasting ways.
But, as inspiring as melodies may be, it is often the words to a piece of music that serve as the greatest inspiration. Words which are meaningful when read or spoken impact us so much more deeply when they are set to music. The music combined with the words can become a driving force which grabs us and will not let go.
I have often spoken from the bima of my personal musical hero, the late Harry Chapin, whose words and melodies move me no matter how many times I hear them. And, for the past few days, I have found myself listening and singing along to a song he wrote some 40 years ago in tribute to one of his mentors, a man whose life and words and music inspired so many for so many years but whom some apparently felt was just an “old folkie” whose time had passed.
Here are some of Harry Chapin’s words of tribute and respect to this man’s enduring impact on our lives. What was true 40 years ago is still true today:
He’s the man with the banjo and the 12-string guitar.
And he’s singing us the songs that tell us who we are.
When you look in his eyes, you know he’s really in there.
Yeah, he knows where we’re going and where we been
And how the fog is gettin’ thicker where the future should begin.
When you look at his life, you know he’s really been there.
They say he’s always bleedin’
But whenever somebody’s needing him,
He’s the one who cares.
It’s always the “Old Folkie”
Whenever something’s burning,
Or a lesson needs some learning,
Or a tide that needs some turning,
To a better world somewhere,
Yeah, the “Old Folkie’s” there.
He’s the man who put the meaning in the music book.
Yeah, the world may be tired but Pete’s still going strong.
He wrote this song in honor of Pete Seeger and now, after Pete’s death this past Monday at age 94, the words are so much more meaningful.
Pete Seeger was one of a kind. He was a musician who loved music for what it was, who was a musical scholar in so many ways, but who will always be best known for using his music to lift us up- to inspire, to encourage, to push us to dream and to act on our dreams. Taking up whatever cause needed him most, he sang for civil rights, for an end to the war in Vietnam, for the environment, for labor unions, for whoever needed him.
Pete Seeger taught us about the power of music and the power of words. His words and melodies could pound like a hammer against injustice, ring like a bell to proclaim truth and were the songs which inspired so many of those musicians whom I grew up hearing. My older brother tried to teach me to appreciate the words of Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and so many others. At first, I was too young to understand then but as I grew up and listened again and then found my own favorites, many of the same genre, I realized how sacred these words are. And, I realize now especially how the man I saw singing and playing his banjo at an informal concert in a park in Boston when I was 10 or 11 years old was such a mentor to the musical poets I love.
I know some contemporary musicians take on social causes with their music and the fact that it just doesn’t seem the same to me is partly a sign of age and perspective. But, I fear that the tradition that Pete Seeger was such a big part of, maybe the biggest part of: using music to lift us up to a higher sense of social consciousness and responsibility seems to be rare these days.
But, as long as there are cds and Itunes or youtube or whatever they called those flat black vinyl things, his music will live on after him and will inspire so many. And hopefully, it is not only the old folkies among us but the younger people too who will find meaning in these words set to music.
Meanwhile, all of us who have been influenced by Pete Seeger will continue to listen to his words and will be inspired to write our own songs, our own poems and yes, even our own sermons with the goal of uplifting those who hear our words and bringing about the change in our world that he sang out for so loudly and clearly.
There is a Hassidic commentary on Parashat Terumah that it is not only the giver who was elevated by the contribution to the tabernacle, but God also was uplifted when people gave with the proper spirit.
When we sing the Hallel and sing it with all of our heart, God is uplifted as well. And, when the words and music of the dreamers and activists like Pete Seeger, inspire us to do small or big things to make this world a better place, God is surely uplifted.
But, this morning, words are not enough. I want us all to feel that inspiration again and by doing so, elevate each other and elevate the Kadosh Baruch Hu. And, maybe, those in the congregation this morning who are too young to know what I’ve been talking about for the last 10 minutes will look into the eyes of those who are singing and catch a glimpse of what it can mean when music moves us to a higher place and greater awareness of our responsibilities as human beings. Then, maybe later today your parents and grandparents can tell you a bit more about why this has been so important to us over the years.
So, please join me in the song that many of us have been singing all week. I was going to print out the words and hand them out but I know you don’t need them. You all know these words written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
Please join with me:
Here I led the congregation in the singing of If I Had A Hammer which many spontaneously stood up for, joining hands as they sang. It was quite a moment.
May the memory of Pete Seeger, continue to be an inspiration to all.