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Parashat R’eih

Parashat R’eih: The Pageant on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal; Once Again: The MiSinai Melodies in the High Holy Day Services

We begin to study the portion R’eih, and we learn about a new educational methodology used by Mosheh Rabbeinu/Moses our Teacher, as he delivers his final teachings to the Children of Israel. Moses is beginning his third discourse, and he stages an elaborate and dramatic ceremony involving all the Israelites. We learn, “When the Eternal your G-d brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal; both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites… (11:29-30).”

In next week’s portion, and later in the Book of Joshua, Moses elaborates on the dramatic ceremony he is orchestrating. Six tribes are instructed to ascend one mountain, and the other six are commanded to ascend the second. The Kohanim/Priests are instructed to surround the Holy Ark, and the Levites are commanded to form an outer circle. The Priests recite 12 moral principles, first in the affirmative, and then in the negative. For each positive commandment, they must fact Mount Gerizim, and for each negative statement they fact Mount Ebal. The assembled tribes on both mountains respond “Amein,” after each proclamation.

Up to this moment, Moses’s review of the Torah has been an oration. In R’eih, Moses shows what a creative educator he has become. All effective teachers know that there are many different modes of instruction needed to communicate to students. In this portion, Moses shows that he understands the necessity of using multiple teaching techniques to communicate G-d’s laws to B’nai Israel.

We learn this from the name of the parashah! The Children of Israel are commanded to “R’eih!” They are told to “SEE!” They must watch the forthcoming ceremony attentively, in addition to hearing the teachings directly from Moses. According to tradition, Mount Gerizim is fertile, but Mount Ebal is barren and rocky, symbolizing the consequences of the choices they are about to make.

The Israelites are commanded to build a Temple, where they will bring sacrifices. This law was not fulfilled for another four hundred years, when King Solomon built the first Beit Hamikdash/Temple in Jerusalem.

In Chapter 14, the Israelites are taught the requirements needed to bring G-d’s holiness into the act of eating. They are instructed what animals are fit, or kosher, for human consumption, and what fish and birds are considered permissible to eat. For many Jews, these laws are still valid and meaningful to the present day.

In Chapter 15, the Israelites are taught about the Sh’mitah Year, the Year of Release. “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts (15:1).” During the Sh’mitah Year, in Israel there are restrictions on harvesting crops. These laws are still in effect to this day. The current Jewish Year, 5782, is a Sh’mitah Year in Israel, and there are significant limits on what can and cannot be harvested.

The portion of R’eih ends with a list of the Three Festivals/Shalosh Regalim, that we celebrate to this day. The portion describes the observances for Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the Torah based rationales for these festive holidays.

In our Ashkenazic musical heritage, each individual holiday has its own unique musical signature: its own melodies, modes, and “Nusach.” Especially the High Holy Day services are characterized by ancient and beautiful musical materials that we only hear once a year.

Last evening, Shir KI began rehearsals for this coming year. Our first major project is preparation for the High Holy Day services. As our singers began to sing the opening Barkhu and Sh’ma Yisrael for the Rosh Hashanah evening service for the first time, the music transported us to a sacred space and time! Last year, I discussed the concept MiSinai Melodies in our Jewish musical repertoire. During the High Holy Day services, there are over forty melodies that originated during the Middle Ages in the towns of Mainz and Worms, in Germany, that were the birthplaces of these MiSinai Melodies. The term “MiSinai” means that we consider these melodies AS IF they originated on Mount Sinai, along with the Torah. We consider them unchangeable, sacred, and beloved. These melodies are sung only one time during the High Holy Day season. As soon as we hear them, our hearts and minds return to previous High Holy Day services that we experienced with our families in years gone by. These musical selections prepare us for our repentance from the sins of the past year.

In many instances, the High Holy Day MiSinai melodies replace tunes to prayers that we sing every Shabbat. The High Holy Day versions of Sh’ma Yisrael and Mi Chamocha are sung by the Cantor, Shir KI, and the congregation instead of the tunes that we sing the rest of the year.

The most famous MiSinai Melody is of course, Kol Nidre. This haunting collection of motifs is sung on the opening of the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur evening wherever Ashkenazic Jews (Jews of European descent) gather for High Holy Day services.

I am fascinated by the eternal power of the MiSinai Melodies to transport us emotionally and religiously, and I continue to teach about them.

In our KI repertoire, there are many compositions and melodies that bring us to a heightened awareness of the High Holy Day season: Mah Tovu, Mi Chamocha, Shalom Rav, Avinu Malkeinu, Sim Shalom, and so many others. In recent years, Cantor Levy and I sing together a contemporary setting of L’dor Vador by the American composer, Craig Taubman, that has become truly beloved by our High Holy Day congregants. Although not a MiSinai melody in an historical sense, the L’dor Vador composition has become synonymous with our KI High Holy Day observance.

If you want to learn more about the MiSinai Melodies, there is still time to join Shir KI! Our sensational adult choir meets on Tuesday evenings in the chapel at 7 pm sharp. We are preparing the magnificent High Holy Day KI music, and we welcome new and enthusiastic singers.

All the Tilman’s wish our KI family Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.