Shana Tova. As some of you may know, the Torah trope is different for reading the High Holy Day portions than it is for our regular weekday Torah reading. Even when we read these exact same words, as we will in a little over a month’s time, the sounds are different. What do the different intonations teach us?
The terms trope, cantillations, or ta’amei hamikra all refer to the musical notes used to read Tanakh. There is a set of notes for weekly Torah reading and a different system for reading Torah on High Holy Days. Haftarah, the weekly readings from the books of prophets, has its own set, as does Megillat Esther, read on Purim. There’s another set of cantillations for reading the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av and another set for reading the scrolls of Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes for Shavuot, Passover, and Succot, respectively. All six systems of cantillations have the same symbols and names, but the musical notes that each symbol is meant to convey changes between each of the six versions. The written symbols were established in the early 10th century by rabbis who were largely responsible for physically writing and widely distributing the Tanakh and other important Jewish texts that had previously been orally passed down. The sounds predate the written symbols, though we don’t know for certain how early they were established and how much they have changed over the years. Each of the six systems have different sounds depending where in the world they are taught and Torah is learned, seemingly developed from the same source but evolved according to the sounds of the non-Jewish music of the communities Jews have lived alongside. The sounds were once taught using hand motions and were a means of helping words of Torah stick in memory, but they became so central to Torah study and public reading even after written Tanakhs became available, that Abraham ibn Ezra, a 12th century rabbi, declared that any Torah recited without the proper cantillations would be better off going unheard.
Music can communicate so much. Not too long ago, Philip and I were arguing about the acting strengths of musical actors. I am a fervent lover of musicals and defender of the hard-working triple threats that people pay lots of money to see on Broadway. Philip would rather see non-musical dramas. But he did make a good point that I tried to argue against at the time, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I have to concede his point. He suggested that actors who perform in musicals, especially my beloved Les Misérables or any of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock operas in which there is no unsung dialog, don’t have to work as hard to communicate the subtle human emotions of their characters because the music carries the intended sentiments. Sometimes the tune of a song can tell us a as much as the words themselves.
In the case of these words of Torah that we will read in the morning, the meaning is the same now as it will be in six weeks, but the emotions we bring to them are slightly different, and the differences in Trope sounds carry that. While Sarah’s for her miracle baby may be relevant at any time for some, at this crossroad between years, we can all relate to a yearning for something meaningful and different to happen in the new year ahead. Hagar’s heartache and fear after being cast out of her home without the resources to care for her baby may or may not seem a common danger to many of us in our comfortable day-to-day lives, but as we reflect on our year past, we can more likely relate to her worries over how she ended up in such a place. I would certainly hope no one can directly connect with Isaac’s near-sacrifice, but perhaps your New Year’s resolution this Rosh HaShanah require a similar level of resolve and courage and faith. Whereas the weekly Torah reading trope has a kind of whimsical tone to it, the High Holy Day trope sounds the aching longing for the imminent miracles, the necessary life changes. It helps even those who don’t relate to the characters’ particular goals or struggles understand the underlying message: Anything can happen this year, if you will it so.
Each of these characters were willing to accept seemingly disastrous fates, had faith in the ultimate Divine plan, and made their attempts to make the best of the situations at hand. In reward, there situations were vastly improved: Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were able to find the resources necessary to survive the desert, and Isaac was spared by an angel and a ram. If they had sulked or turned their backs on God, who know how their stories would have turned out. But they each showed great resolve and trust, and they rolled with the punches, each resulting in meaningful change. I think even the flourished sound of the end of the aliyot intimate the triumphant results of the trials and tribulations, and can further inspire us to do like our ancestors did. I hope tomorrow you will listen carefully as I sing these stories, listen to the sounds you hear, to storytelling even if you can’t understand the words. Can you hear the heart-aching determination, can you feel the inspiration for faith and courage?
As you listen to these sounds tomorrow, as you hear the stories of our ancestors on our Days of Awe, I encourage you to ponder: in this year to come, what meaningful change are you looking for? What are you willing to sacrifice for it, how hard will you work at it, how long will you keep your belief in the end result in the face of adversity? May you find the music that speaks your truth, the notes that push you forward. May you be like Sarah, Hagar, and Isaac: resilient, faithful, and ultimately successful. May you have a good and sweet year. Amen, and Shana Tova.