The power of singing your Teshuvah (repentance/returning)

I have always been fascinated with music. What is it about particular patterns of sound that makes us respond emotionally? The High Holidays are filled with magnificent music and sounds:

  • We hear the primal sound of the shofar, offering a spiritual alarm clock to help jolt us out of the slumber of regular routines, and help us return to the version of our self that notices decision points throughout the day, rather than simply moving through them as usual.
  • We hear the special liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with repetitive refrains reminding us of heavy themes: the fragile and temporary nature of life, the holiness of interpersonal relationships, the power of communal repentance and communal redemption, and the finality of death.
  • We hear (and traditionally do not see) the priestly blessing being bestowed by the Kohanim towards the rest of the congregation, requesting that God grant us favor, and shine God’s light on us.
  • We hear the particular stories sung from the Torah and Haftorah readings that the Rabbis selected for these holidays: how Abraham and Sarah were granted a child in their extreme old age, and the resulting family discord between Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael. How Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, but is saved from doing so at the last minute. How Jonah repents. How we cast our sins out into the desert via the scapegoat.

And of course we sing. We sing together for hour after hour, joining our voices in harmony using lyrics that are both ancient and new. In the Torah portion we read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (VaYelech), we find a unique commandment:

וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

“So now write this song and teach it to the children of Israel. Set it in their mouths, so this song will become a witness for me among the children of Israel.” (translation by Richard Elliot Friedman)

I think this commandment, and the timing during which we read it, offers an important insight. It is almost impossible to lie in a song, to yourself or to others, and that makes singing a particularly powerful way to repent because people can tell (and you can tell) whether or not you really mean it.

My family and I love watching The Voice, and among other reasons we enjoy it, we love the coaching and mentoring that participants receive throughout their runs on the show. Over and over, no matter who the coach is, participants are advised to think about how to connect emotionally with both the songs they sing, and the audience they sing to. This is because the coaches know, whether implicitly or explicitly, that you can’t fake it with singing – people can always tell. So the great singers, the ones that move to the finals, are usually the ones who figure out how to let their emotions come through authentically.

This message is clear from the words in the Torah – the song itself bears witness. You can’t fake it, and that is why we sing our Teshuvah; why we sing our way back to our best selves as we repent and return. We let the power of those sounds bear witness, and the singing is a test and a display of whether or not we really mean it.

It is traditional to use these intermediate days to ask for forgiveness in our important relationships, and it can be very powerful to model that practice with your children. You can talk to them about the difference between saying sorry when you are told to, and saying sorry when you mean it. The prosodic (musical) elements of speech are cues for underlying emotions. We can literally hear the different songs that we speak to one another when we apologize meaningfully versus just on the surface. When you help your children understand the difference, you are giving them social/emotional tools that will serve them for their entire lives.

Wishing you a meaningful ten days of reconnecting with yourself, your family, your community and beyond.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah.