V’chi Yodov (London)

July 5, 2022

I was recently involved in a spirited conversation with some formidable music mavens, during which some timeless, technical and nuanced topics arose. We grappled for hours with the spiritual, psychological, emotional and philosophical aspects of music, and in the end, I’m pretty sure those age-old questions remained mostly unanswered.

However, one major takeaway that I had from the discussion was gaining a clearer understanding of my own relationship with music. I seem to view music as an ever-present complement to life – a powerful tool to help amplify and enhance our existence, to help us better understand and achieve our life’s purpose – as opposed to being a fleeting distraction or a temporary replacement of reality.

There are niggunim for Torah that function as a means to help us understand and better remember our learning. There are many musical motifs that are used to help us grasp and interpret the distinct meanings and intentions that our tefilos contain. There is the integral role of the Levi’im and their songs in the Beis Hamikdash, and the Shira that each creation sings every day of its life. When someone is said to be in a state of pure joy, he is likely to want to “burst out in song,” and music is even there to help us realize and actualize the discomfort of a personal struggle or communal loss.

I truly believe that there is a melody for each and every moment of our lives – a vibrant, intricate symphony made specifically for each of us – that all of us have the capacity to hear, if and only when we listen with our hearts.

But that’s just what I think. What does music mean to you? Would love to hear from you! Either way, I definitely found this to be a conversation worth having and would encourage others to do the same.
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In Parshas Chukas, Am Yisroel finds itself only miles away from their final destination of Eretz Canaan. As they turned to begin the rigorous, circuitous trek around the nation of Edom, the Torah (21:4) tells us about an episode of complaining amongst the people. At this point, they were passing alongside inhabited lands, past nations that were living, not in tents, but in real homes, and eating real food instead of mann. And for some – not all – these sights caused a certain amount of dissatisfaction, and so they spoke out against Hashem and Moshe.

Before we can fully appreciate what happened next, we must first travel back to the 6th Day of Creation, when we first meet the primordial serpent. Everyone knows the story of the downfall of Adam and Chava when they were persuaded by the Nachash to eat from the Eitz Hada’as. The name “Nachash,” we must know, represents a great power that the Creator put into this world – we call it by its Talmudic name, the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. It’s a certain force, a real force that exists in the world to test mankind, to put us through ordeals and to test our virtue.

That was the function of the snake; to mislead, to test and to tempt. To make Adam and Chava feel dissatisfied. They had everything! There was only one thing that they didn’t have, the fruit of just one tree, and the job of the Nachash was to make them see what they couldn’t have. We may still wonder, how was his ploy so successful? How could an intelligent person not see right through his conniving tactics?

A comment by the Dubno Maggid guides us to some understanding. Later in Bereishis (3:3-4), Hashem admonishes Kayin: “If you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin crouches at the door.” The Maggid attests that he heard the Vilna Gaon explain that Hashem told Kayin that the Yetzer Hara has no chance of success when we shut the door firmly in front of him. It is only because we leave it open – albeit, only the smallest crack – that he is able to widen it, establish a position, and launch an offensive that leads to his eventual victory.

The crack that we are talking about is one of safek. To best the Yetzer Hara, overwhelming commitment just isn’t good enough. It’s not even close. Anything less than absolute, undiluted resolve not to sin results in a dangerous game. When we play it, too often we lose. We see clearly from our first encounter with the often-incognito Amalek – a physical manifestation of the Yetzer Hara – whose modus operandi is, and always has been to pounce on uncertainty and confusion. Amalek – whose gematria (240) is the same as “safek” (Bnei Yissaschar, Purim) – appears out of nowhere immediately after Bnei Yisroel voiced some doubt: “Is Hashem present among us or not?” (Shemos, 17:7).

In the ensuing battle that took place, the pesukim tell us (17:11) that whenever Moshe held up his hands in prayer, Klal Yisroel prevailed; but whenever his arms grew heavy and he let down his hands, Amalek would gain the upper hand (so to speak). The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) asks, “Did the position of Moshe’s hands make or break their success in battle?? Rather, the pasuk means to tell you that as long as Yisroel were looking upward and subjecting their hearts to the service of their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; but when they didn’t, they fell.”

Now, let’s pick up where we left off earlier. Only a stone’s throw away from Eretz Yisroel, the weary travelers are directed to make an about-face, pushing some among them to doubt Hashem’s Hashgacha Pratis and protest. In response, Hakadosh Baruch Hu swiftly shows them that He has never left their side, punishing them by sending venomous snakes to attack those who complained. After realizing their error, they admitted their sin and begged Moshe to daven on their behalf.

When Moshe Rabbeinu turned to Hashem, He commanded Moshe to make a form of a snake and to put it on a pole, and it will be that all who were bitten will look up at that snake and will become healed (21:8). And so it was; that if a serpent bit a man, he would look at the copper image and live! Thus, again, the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah almost incredulously asks, “Does looking at a snake cause death or life? (Of course not!) Rather, the pasuk means to tell you that as long as Yisroel were looking upward and subjecting their hearts to the service of their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but when they didn’t, they withered away.”

So, now that we are equipped with a better understanding of the Nachash and his relentless role in the grand scheme of things, we can unlock the connection of these events and their subsequent repercussions. In both cases, Moshe – the quintessential rebbi – gives us the antidote to the poisonous bite of the cunning and camouflaged Yetzer Hara: we must identify and expose it for what it truly is – a mere distraction from our true purpose in this world – and raise it high above our given circumstance in order to understand that it, too, is from our loving Father in Heaven.
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The compositions of Yigal Calek are unlike any other, in that they always serve as very appropriate accompaniment to their respective lyrics. His melodies tell us about the man behind the tune, and how he believes that, in its truest form, music should amplify and enhance life’s moments and their associated emotions. One of the many excellent examples of this attribute can be heard in the recording of V’chi Yodov by The London School of Jewish Song on their initial collaboration with The Neginah Orchestra back in 1973.

The words of the Mishnah practically come to life in this classic rendition, allowing the listener to apply his own life to the lesson of its words – a characteristic that will continue to make Yigal’s music so uniquely precious for many years to come.

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