There is nothing more enchanting, mystical, and mysterious than the experience of music. It has the ability to reach the very roots of our soul. The right melody can transform our mood, bring us to tears of sadness or joy, and release emotions buried deep within the bedrock of our consciousness. Music unlocks the door to our hearts, allowing us to feel and embrace our innermost yearnings for connection and oneness lying dormant within each of us, begging to be freed, begging to be expressed. From the artist’s perspective, music is the vulnerable expression of self; from the listener’s view, music is permission to connect to the divine, to transcend the shackles of mundane existence, to experience something other-worldly. Many have their favorite song, their personal gateway to spiritual ecstasy. With every note and every strum, their soul awakens and transcends ad-infinitum. The Rambam states that had we not been gifted the Torah, we would have studied music in order to tap into spiritual truths. And yet, if one breaks down and analyzes a musical piece, he or she would likely be surprised at its apparent simplicity.
Almost every Jewish song, especially in Western music, follows the same simple two-step progression. The song begins with a low, steady build-up, progressively increasing in emotional intensity as it sets the foundation for what is yet to come. This build-up repeats itself, again rising in intensity, before bursting into the chorus, where the contained intro expands into a full expression of emotion, where the soul erupts, unfiltered, guided by the stirring melody and perfect words to capture the indescribable tune. The chorus then reverts back to the lower intro, and this process repeats itself (sometimes with a bridge) until the song finishes. This is the simple structure of a song: a circle. Two low verses, two high, and repeat. One would expect music, one of the most spiritually uplifting experiences known to mankind, to be more complex, more novel, than a simple circle!
As we read Parshas Haazinu, the parshah characterized by song, let us delve deeper into the concept of song and circles in order to develop a profound principle in Jewish thought. It is no coincidence that as we read Parshas Haazinu, we also find ourselves about to enter the holiday of Sukkos, a holiday uniquely connected to circles and song, as well. Every day, as we recite the Hoshanos, we walk in a circle. On Simchas Torah, as we celebrate the completion of the Torah with joyous song, we repeat this circular process seven times over. What is it about song that so enraptures the human spirit, and how is this connected to the concept of circles?
Circles: Spiritual Death
A circle represents spiritual death. It is a geometrical anomaly, as it is the only shape with no newness: no turns, no corners, no changes. A circle is a cycle that goes nowhere, contains no growth, and lacks any evolution. No point on the circle is unique, with each point equidistant to the center. A circle simply returns back to its starting point, without making any progress. [In actuality, a circle has no beginning and no end.]
Judaism: A Religion of Newness
The Jewish system is uniquely founded on the concept of newness. The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people upon leaving Egypt was the commandment to declare the new month: “Ha’chodesh ha’zeh lachem rosh chodashim” (Sh’mos 12:2). Why is this so? This seems like a secondary concept, not nearly as important as the mitzvos of Shabbos, bris milah, and many other such essential mitzvos. But the answer is profound.
Upon leaving Egypt, the Jewish people experienced their very own birth, their inception as a nation. The Hebrew word for month, chodesh, also spells chadash, “new.” The Jewish people are a people who count by the lunar year, built from months. Just as the moon constantly changes as it waxes and wanes, we are a people of newness and constant growth, waxing and waning through our endless evolution. The Western world counts by the solar year, which is based on the earth’s yearly rotation around the sun. The Hebrew word for year is shanah, which also means old, and comes from the same root as the word yashein, which means sleeping. It reflects the concept of repetition and mindless cycles, as the word sheini means to repeat or do something twice. The sun does not appear to change; it remains static. A life of shanah represents a life spent spiritually sleeping, lacking any growth or newness. In a solar year, the months are merely a practical way of breaking down the year. In the lunar year, however, the months are the creative building blocks that come together to form the year. In essence, the Jewish system is built from twelve creative months, not a single repeating year. However, to understand the true ideals of Judaism and reframe how we are meant to relate to circles, we must briefly delve into the nature of time.
The Nature of Time
The assumed and widely accepted understanding of time is that it moves in a straight line. Hashem created our world of space and time, and, since its inception, time has been moving inexorably forward. Along this line of time are the past, the present, and the future. If we were to move backward on this line of time, we could peer through history and find Avraham Avinu at the Akeidah, Moshe Rabbeinu receiving the Torah, and the Rambam writing the Mishneh Torah. Our current experience is taking place in the middle of the line, and if we could move forward along the line we would see events that have not yet happened. However, there is a major challenge to this theory.
There is a piyut in the Pesach Haggadah (U’v’chein Va’amartem) that states that Avraham Avinu served matzah to the three angels who visited him because it was Pesach at that time. Rashi quotes this opinion on the p’sukim in B’reishis (B’reishis 19:3) and says that Lot did the same for the mal’achim who came to S’dom. How can this be? The mitzvah of Matzah originates from the event of Y’tzias Mitzrayim – an event that would not occur for another few centuries!
Circles in Time
To understand why Avraham and Lot served their guests matzah before Pesach even occurred, we must develop a deeper understanding of time. Time does not move along one continuous, straight line; it actually circles around in a repeating yearly cycle. As the Ramchal explains, Hashem created thematic cycles of time, where each point in the year holds unique spiritual energies. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, and all the chagim are each associated with its own unique spiritual themes in time.
This deep understanding transforms our perception of time. We don’t celebrate freedom each year on the 15th of Nisan because that’s when the Jews were freed from Egypt; rather the Jews were redeemed from Egypt on the 15th of Nisan because that is z’man cheiruseinu, the time of freedom. That power of freedom is what allowed the Jews to escape the slavery of Mitzrayim. This is why Avraham and Lot ate matzah long before the actual g’ulah. Matzah represents freedom, and Avraham and Lot tapped into the spiritual waves of freedom that were inherent at that point in time. They were not commemorating a historical event; they were tapping into the deep energies of time inherent at the point in the circle. So, too, we do not simply commemorate a historical event as we experience each holiday, but rather, we tap into the deep energies inherent at that point in time. Thus, it is clear that time is not a continuous line, but a circle.
Spirals in Time
However, even the circle analogy is limiting. If time were indeed a circle, each point of the year would simply be a recreation and repetition of that point from the previous year, from the previous time around the circle. That would be pointless. As we previously mentioned, we do not seek to re-experience the past each year. Our goal is to expand upon what we have created year by year, so that this year, when we return to that same point on the circle from last year, we are in a fundamentally different place. Each Rosh HaShanah should be higher than the previous one; each Pesach, a new Pesach, and each Shavuos, a new Shavuos. Through our growth and ascension we are able to convert the two-dimensional circle into a three dimensional spiral, traversing along the same circle at ever greater heights. We maintain the circularity while achieving ascension.
The same is true for all spiritual circles. The ideal is not to transcend the circular system, but to uplift it, to transform the circle into a spiral, to find innovative ways of creating newness within the circular system, not beyond it.
The Concept of Song
Although a song may superficially appear to be like a circle – two low verses, two high, and repeat – a song is actually meant to be a spiral. The intro creates a build-up of emotion that explodes into the chorus. But ideally, the chorus does not simply revert back to the original starting point. Instead, the low part is now meant to be on a fundamentally different level, still riding the waves of momentum and energy from the chorus. The low part is deeper this time, and you can feel the greater level of intensity. And then, as the low part builds up even more powerfully, it bursts into an even more powerful and explosive chorus. This process can theoretically repeat itself ad-infinitum. As a matter of fact, at Jewish weddings of old, they used to dance around in circles singing the same song for hours on end. Each time around they would build the next rung in the spiral of the song as they built the next rung in their circular dancing. This is why we dance in circles at celebrations and during the hakafos of Sukkos. We are, in fact, dancing in spirals; and as we ascend through song, we spiritually ascend as well.
Each day of Sukkos, we build off the previous day’s hakafah, climbing up one rung higher. On Simchas Torah, after having built our spiral staircase during Sukkos, we dance up all seven flights of our newly built staircase as we accept the Torah in a transcendent fashion (the eighth rung).
Bringing Chodesh into the Shanah
We can now apply this principle to time itself. If time is meant to be a spiral, there is an apparent tension between two themes: The Jewish system of time is rooted in chodesh – newness – and seemingly opposed to shanah – the circular system of solar years. However, we have already shown that Judaism does not oppose circles, but instead proposes to transform them into circles. If so, we must further develop our understanding of shanah.
In truth, our goal is not to transcend the realm of shanah, but to transform it into an experience of chodesh – newness – within the realm of shanah. As such, we create months within the year, newness within the old, spirals within the circular framework. We don’t pull the months out of the year, but allow the months to uplift the year. The same physical template of shanah receives the innovation and creativity that comes with chodesh. This is beautifully manifest within the word shanah itself.
Shanah means that which is cyclical and repetitive, and represents mindless ritual. However, shanah also has another distinct meaning: to learn and to change (shinui). This is because when you add chidush to shanah, when you infuse newness to the circle, you create spiraling growth. This is why effective repetition is the key to genuine growth.
Linking the Lunar to the Solar Year
There is one glaring problem with the concept of linking the lunar year to the solar year: The math does not add up. A full lunar year is 355 days, while the solar year is 365 days. As such, there are a full ten days missing if one unites the lunar and solar years. How, then, can we create this link? After all, Chazal themselves sometimes use the solar year in regard to halachic matters (Makos 23b, Krisus 6a, Yoma 20a). This would only make sense if we could successfully link the lunar and solar years together, bridging the gap between shanah and chodesh, and thereby giving spiritual significance to the solar calendar. How, then, can we do so?
The Vilna Gaon (in his peirush to Sefer Ditzniyusa – Chapter 2) explains that the ten days of the Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah serve as the link between the lunar and solar year. The judgment of the previous year carries over into the new year and remains in limbo until it is sealed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thus, the lunar year gets extended ten days longer, linking the 365 days of the solar year to the 355 days of the lunar year, allowing the powerful collusion to take place.
Life is a Song
When one lives a truly holistic life, tapping into the true nature and meaning of existence, life itself becomes a song: a magical and immersive experience, a soulful adventure, a spiraling staircase. The true beauty of a song is our unique ability to enjoy every note, every step, every stage in the progression. If one learned how to live life like this, whereby every step was not only a means towards becoming something else, but was fully experienced, embraced, and treasured, then life itself would transform into a cosmic symphony, whereby every aspect of reality played its notes, and everyone around became redefined as a unique musician in Hashem’s eternal orchestra. Music is powerful, but becoming part of the music is even more sublime. On the deepest level, as the Navi says, a true musician does not play the music, but becomes the music. May we all be inspired to play our instrument, to contribute our song, into the grand symphony of life, and to transform the circles of life into the transcendent spiral staircase leading towards our ultimate destination.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.