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Parashat KI Tetzei and the MiSinai Melodies

This Shabbat, we read Parashat Ki Tetzei, the sixth portion in the book of Deuteronomy. This section is packed full of important laws delivered by Moses to the Israelites in his final discourse and review of the Torah before they cross over the Jordan River on their way into Eretz Yisrael. This section contains laws relating to individuals, their families, and their neighbors, in contrast to the preceding laws, which concern the nation of Israel as one community. We know that the entire Torah contains 613 laws, a number that is basic to our understanding of traditional Torah history. This week’s portion contains 74 of those laws, 1/8th of all the Torah based commandments!

We learn about the laws of the beautiful captive, the inheritance rights of the firstborn, the wayward and rebellious son, burial and dignity of the dead, returning a lost object, sending away the mother bird before taking her young, and the obligation to erect a safety fence around the roof of one’s home. Ki Tetzei is an intense portion, filled with difficult passages both to chant and to comprehend!

The portion concludes with the command to remember always what the evil Amalek did to the Israelites during their wanderings. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt-how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”(25:17-18) The evil Haman in the Purim story is identified as a descendant of Amalek.

This past Tuesday evening in the Main Sanctuary, members of Shir KI, our fabulous volunteer adult choir and our professional quartet, gathered for only the second rehearsal in two years to renew, revive, and relearn the music of the High Holidays! When we completed our first chanting of Kol Nidrei, no one could utter a word, or even breathe! We were all aware of the powerful melody that we had not sung in two years and its impact on all of us. For the 25 singers, Cantor Levy, Andrew Senn, virtuoso organist, and me, the sound of all our traditional High Holy Day music was such an intense and dramatic refresher of the role Jewish music plays in our lives, and how much we missed this music! As we sang Kol Nidre, Avinu Malkeinu, B’rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, L’dor Vador, and all the other golden “hits” of our High Holy Day repertoire, our hearts were opened both to our cherished memories of family members and past High Holy Day prayer experiences, and to the coming of the Days of Awe and our collective need for repentance and renewal.

I want to tell you about a collection of Jewish musical materials that scholars call MISINAI MELODIES! These melodies were born during the eleventh century at the height of the Crusades, in the communities of Worms, Mayence, Speyer, Cologne, and Trier, resulting from bloody confrontations between Jewish and non-Jewish communities. These confrontations led to musical borrowings between cultures and the creative efforts by poets and composers to create new poetry recognizing these often-tragic collisions. These new literary texts were inserted into our emerging prayer books. The accompanying melodies were eventually treated AS IF they came from Mount Sinai; the tunes were soon regarded with veneration, sanctity, and respect. They came to be considered immutable and unchanging, and were therefore called MISINAI MELODIES, as if they were given to us on Mount Sinai, the ultimate location of G-d’s revelation to us.

Each MiSinai Melody is found in one and only one place in the High Holy Day prayer book. Prominent medieval Rabbinic authorities were all aware of the MiSinai Melodies and wrote about them.

From the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah evening service until the end of the Ne-ilah service on Yom Kippur, Jewish musicologists have identified forty MiSinai Melodies. Each of these tunes has an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. Improvised chants have neither a beginning nor end. Each has a definite rhythm. Most important, each melody is assigned to one and only one liturgical text in the service. Once the MiSinai Melody has been sung, we do not hear it again until next year!

The most well known MiSinai Melody is the tune for the Kol Nidrei prayer sung at the beginning of the Yom Kippur Evening Service. The Kol Nidrei MiSinai Melody is immediately recognizable and unforgettable. In this example, as well as in the case of the other MiSinai Melodies, the sound of tune evokes in our hearts and minds a variety of emotions and memories from past observances of the holiday. We remember when we heard the melody the last time! We remember with whom we were praying as we heard the Kol Nidrei MiSinai Melody. We recall how we felt at that time, and what we were thinking. The melody serves as a signpost along the way in our Synagogue worship experience. We know where we are at this moment, and we can plan for what is coming next.

As Hazzan, I sang the Kol Nidrei melody for almost four decades! For the past nine High Holy Day seasons, it has been my unique privilege to conduct Shir KI as the choir and the organ accompanied the magnificent and inspiring Kol Nidrei  sung by Cantor Levy!

The MiSinai Melodies of the High Holy Day season are unforgettable! Their sounds, whether loud or soft, slow or fast, move us together from one emotional crescendo to the next diminuendo. In the KI service, the melodies for Barchu, Hatzi Kaddish, Tiku Bahodesh Shofar, B’Rosh Hashanah Yikateivun, Ashamnu, and ultimately Kol Nidrei keep us together musically, liturgically, and emotionally. The contemporary setting of L’dor Vador by Craig Taubman that Cantor Levy and I sing together has become a de facto MiSinai Melody in our High Holy Day service; it is associated with one and only one section from the liturgy and is a musical landmark in our High Holiday services.

My beloved wife, Ellen, and our children Avrum, Rabbi Howard and Naomi, Alana, and our “Einiklach” Micah Toby and Sophie Daniela, join me in praying that we all should be inscribed in the Book of Life for a New Year of GOOD HEALTH, happiness, success, and peace, as we sing together our prayers to the traditional MiSinai Melodies.