A Holy Melody
History doesn’t record the date of the first chase after success, because it started before anyone attempted to document it. Everyone pursues success, but what’s the secret of those who achieve it? What’s the ‘magic’ ingredient that they possess? Whatever it is, it’s not something tangible, though it’s presence or absence are most definitely tangibly felt.
What’s the difference between a dead person and a live one, between something growing and something decayed, between alacrity and laziness, between joy and depression? Everything comes from the earth and eventually returns to it. Between birth and death this pile of earth learns to stand upright, walk, talk, eat and drink, think and create, all by means of the life-force that flows through it. So it seems that life-force – spirit, is the most important of all things.
Some may call it ‘joy’, others ‘vitality’ or ‘fulfilment’ – either way everyone is seeking this life-force, this spirit. All over the world people seek it and invest so many resources into discovering it’s source and secret. All pursue one goal – to truly be alive.
How strange it is then that the more the world invests into the manufacture of joy and fulfilment, the deeper it sinks into the depths of depression. People nowadays are great experts on joy and happiness – they can explain every state of mind and diagnose every emotional condition. Whole institutions and thousands of people are dedicated to the study of psychology and the human emotional condition. The topics of ‘happiness’, ‘fulfilment’ and ‘inner peace’ fill chapters and books in modern day research writings and text books. Everyone knows that happiness is the most precious commodity, and most are willing to pursue it all costs. Whether that means taking bitter pills, illicit drugs, deafening one’s ears with mindless music, dancing, running – whatever it takes to get a bit more of this spirit of happiness and vitality. This is true of the world at large. In the Torah world the spirit and state of the soul are also most central and essential issues.
Yet if we enter into the study hall of a Yeshiva during ‘seder’, the set time for learning, we witness a most perplexing phenomenon. All the young men will be busy with the same Tractate, the same topic, and will mostly probably be on precisely the same page, working to understand the same few lines of the Talmud. So why is it that for one boy the book open before him is like a well-spring of fresh water, bent over it enthusiastically, his fingers following every word with his eyes transfixed on the page, while facing him, sits another boy whose eyes are dim, whose face is pale, and who has half his body slumped under the table with his head above supported only by a hand that prevents him from collapsing entirely from boredom?
What did the Gemoro do for the boy whose eyes it lit up with joy and enthusiasm, that it didn’t do for his colleague who can just about manage to turn the pages? Why are the words of prayer a direct pathway to one boy’s heart, whilst to another they’re a meaningless mantra that must be mumbled as swiftly as possible? What’s the secret that makes one person jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, whilst his friend only greets the sun when it’s almost overhead? The answer lies hidden in the Parsha of the Metzora – leprosy.
Tsoraas, (commonly known as Leprosy) is never a pleasant thing, and together with the negative spiritual repercussions that it entails, it brings a person to a very low place indeed. It’s not for nothing that the Sages compared a person with Tsoraas to a corpse. A Metzora (a person with Tsoraas) is excommunicated from life, locked up outside the camp and is forbidden to communicate with anyone. The holy Zohar says Tsoraas entails the ‘closing off of heavenly light,’ – heavenly influx is withheld from the person.
The Rebbe talks about the meaning of Tsoraas and the process of purification from it in Torah 3 (I). There he explains where good and bad draw their respective life-forces from, and explains how it is that life can so suddenly become heavy going, how a heart that yesterday found so much fulfilment in a chapter of Mishnayos can today not even bring itself to utter the words.
What lies behind this, the Rebbe says, is nothing other than song – music.
“Because when he hears music from a wicked musician” warns the Rebbe, “it harms his ability to serve Hashem.” And the contrary is also true, “When he hears from a kosher musician then it’s good for him.”
Music is the ‘mochin’ (literally brains or mind) of both good and bad. Jealousy, physical appetites and honour-seeking in themselves aren’t as dangerous as the spirit that fuels them. If not for this ‘spirit’, which the media and other illusion-creators exploit to the full, the vanities of this world wouldn’t be able to entice even the most foolish of men. Around every vanity dances a song – this is what carries the illusion, strengthens it, and establishes it as a credible and powerful force.
When the Rebbe talks about music he uses the word as an umbrella term that encompasses all the various forms of entertainment and distraction that people engage in to arouse their weary spirits. The force that gave birth to all these activities, the thirst for true life and vitality, is also what has given birth to the prevalent frivolity of today’s world. Loshon Horoh, speaking negatively about others, is just a natural outcome of frantic burrowing in feelings of emptiness. In those boring moments all that’s left to do is to seek out some faults in someone else, because perhaps there, gloating in the faults and defects of another, will the soul find some respite.
The Metzora is smitten with Tsoraas because he spoke Loshon Horoh. If a person would hear how the gates of Heavenly influx are bolted shut above him when he speaks a word of Loshon Hora he wouldn’t need any lectures about its severity. He would become an instant expert in the laws of Loshon Hora.
Every Jew has a song in his heart that’s just waiting to find the notes to express itself. The melody in the heart is the life spirit that’s contained in the heart of every Jew. When this melody meets notes of Torah and Tefillah, it strengthens, intensifies and becomes a beautiful symphony. Fear of heaven, rather than being a heavy yoke, then becomes light and pleasurable. It uplifts the soul and enables it to pass smoothly over all the challenges of life. This is how it can be so long as there’s wind (or spirit) in the sails. But when this spirit is quashed and departs, then even the smallest challenge becomes an unbearable burden. This is why it’s possible to see a strong healthy man mumbling his grace after meals feebly, like a worn out old man.
“There’s nothing greater than ‘ONeG’ (delight) and nothing worse than ‘NeGah’ (a plague or leprosy),” (Sefer Yetzira). Many times on the way to the Oneg a person finds himself thrown down into the depths of Negah. True Oneg provides genuine life-force, vitality and spirit, it enlivens the song of the heart which draws from the source of life, coming down like dew to water and quenches the soul’s thirst. But it’s only capable of satisfying our healthy thirst. When we thirst for other things and seek to be satisfied by other music (i.e. entertainments, distractions, etc.) the Oneg transforms into a purulent inflammation; a Negah, and delight transforms into a nightmare.
Though leprosy in its physical form may be very rare nowadays, its spiritual equivalent is a rampant epidemic. Most of mankind is ostracised from the camp of true life, each person suffering from his own form of leprosy – a lack of vitality and spirit. This is the root cause of all the modern day spiritual, emotional and social woes. These are the consequences of the contemporary Tsoraas.
So what can we do? True vitality is a rare commodity. There is only one option left – music. We’re already accustomed to turning to music for it’s healing and soothing power. It can help us forget our pain and raise us above our problems. It uplifts our weary spirits. The Halachic permission given to listen to and engage in music after the destruction of the Temple flowed from the fact that ‘Without this, what will happen to us…?’
But when the Rebbe speaks about the use of music and songs, he says that they only help when they flow forth from a kosher musician, one who sings and makes music solely for Hashem’s honour, with no other motives. Where do we find his tapes? Most of the music we hear is not of this calibre.
But don’t despair. After saying this the Rebbe also provides us with a practical piece of advice to help us out – to learn Torah at night. This, he said, protects us from the harm of non-kosher music. For our problem is, in reality, only an expression of a much greater problem. When a Jew lacks vitality in his Yiddishkeit and Kedushah this means that there’s something lacking in the general Malchus D’Kedushah, ‘Holy Kingdom’. When the whole world is dizzy with enthusiasm for foolishness and vanity, then the Malchus HaReshaah, the ‘Wicked Kingdom’ is rejoicing. To correct this situation we need to build up the Holy Kingdom.
In a nutshell – our problem is speech. Speech forms the spirit and the spirit infuses the words, and both of them together either destroy or build up fear of Heaven and faith, Emunah. When the mouth gets accustomed to spewing words of foolishness and vanity; when words are wasted on the oh-so important matters of this world, or are used to degrade others, then the spirit that blows in the sails of the soul is a foreign one, and it’s very hard to do even the smallest holy act.
But if we want to be cured of the plague of Tsaraas there are two simple guidelines to follow. The first is – be quiet. This at the very least cuts off the channels of life-force from the Wicked Kingdom. Stop the negative talk. The second is – learn Torah at night. Such learning builds up the Holy Kingdom. In the night-time hours when the storm winds of this world settle down, a Jew can grasp for himself an hour of true pursuit and toil, an hour when his learning is just for Hashem. Such a genuine act that flows from the pure desire to serve Hashem is capable of rebuilding and restoring the Holy Kingdom. Such learning raises up the Holy Kingdom and revives it. When we do this, we are protected from even the worst music of this world, which then loses its power to bring us down or separate us from the Source of Life.