Beginning with the month of Elul, we are into the Days of Awe ascent. In the synagogue we read the messages of consolation from the prophet Isaiah, leaving the descent of the three weeks of sadness drawn now towards the heights of awe. Where we have been is dark, with Tisha B’Av we are done with that, now into the climb. Towards. That would be a good name for this piece: Towards or Toward (in Liverpool we use towards).
We have a tradition that links every Shabbat with a musical form, a maqam (Hebrew cognate maqom). This week’s maqam is signified by the elusive half-flat, a tone we do not hear much in Western music, between adjacent notes on a piano. You have to listen carefully to make out the half-flat, especially as it is sometimes played slightly lower, slightly higher.
Hard to hear for the unaccustomed ear; you may close your eyes and listen, this is how my teacher taught it to me.
Was I listening for it, or looking for it? I closed my eyes and listened, looking and listening.
Opening the portion Re’eh this week, Moshe our mother is speaking to his children. It begins with “see.” See — I set before you this day a blessing and a curse, the blessing if you listen to the mitzvot of your God, which I command you this day, and the curse if you do not listen.
It begins with see, and is followed by listen. Listen to the mitzvahs, they will set you free. You have to be attentive.
I recall Bo Diddley when he sang the lyric, “You should have heard just what I’ve seen.” The conflation of senses when what you are learning is life-changing, transformative, unlike other forms of more sequential, common wisdom. Listen for the mitzvahs, see them, the mitzvahs will blow your mind.
What is coming is not common, and it’s not a didactic kind of learning, it may not be sequential, some thing, then another, then another. This may be a momentary burst of insight that drives out all contradictions that you may have held before. Your senses might be baffled by all that insight. You should have heard just what I’ve seen. Can you describe that to me? I once asked Mr. Diddley.
Yes I can, son, he said to me. It’s like a song, perfume, the moonlight.
That’s not clear, I said.
In poetry and songs we call this synesthesia, a mixing of senses. Try this one, then this, then this, you’ll get a sense a sniff a peek a sound a hint, you’ll get at it, towards it anyway. Towards. You may have to listen better to pick up the sound. This may be difficult for the unaccustomed listener.
Bo Diddley sang it, as did King David in the Psalms when he uttered the line that inspired Bo Diddley.
Thus Bo Diddley quoting the Psalm, taste and see that God is good (Psalm 34:8), King David’s version of you should have heard just what I’ve seen. And I did. I saw it and I heard it and I tasted it too.
In the third week of consolation, this week, I ate some poetry from Isaiah:
And when you feel
You will look down
See yourself walking on jewels
All your children will be
Students of God
Great will be the peace
Of your children
When you are thirsty go drink
Eat what is good let your soul
Enjoy its abundance
No one will get in your way
And when you need it
Your soul will revive
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Central Reform Congregation and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the Jewish Light’s weekly d’var Torah.