Award shows of late have become more notable for the criticisms they raise than their own content. This year’s Grammys, while not without any controversy, were much better received and, in some cases, lauded for delivering some unexpectedly poignant moments. Perhaps the most noted was the surprise appearance of Tracy Chapman, a performer who has left the public stage for many years and whose song “Fast Car” remains a powerful anthem decades after it was written.
This year, Chapman’s song was covered, with her blessing, by country artist Luke Combs. His version had its own audience but nothing like the impact the original had on so many people, including him. His heartfelt gratitude and awe for being able to perform with the creator of the song that so shaped him was palpable, and, for many of us, it hit home in a way that exceeded what we would have expected on paper.
This ability that music has to transcend the margins of its own composition is expressed by traditional commentators on the Torah in relation to the verse “Write down for yourself This Song (Deut. 31:9)” which is interpreted to mean the entire Torah.
How could the whole Torah, with its prose narration be seen as lyrical, not to mention sections which consist predominantly of case law? The answer is found in the aforementioned qualities of music itself.
In the introduction to the Torah commentary Haemek Davar by R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the point is made directly. “Song is uniquely capable of alluding to things outside the conceptual scope of the song.”
The Torah is an original that comes alive, not only in the singing but in the singer. In their talent, personality, and personal connection to the stories, themes, and the words themselves.
The Grammys succeeded in reminding us that music and musicians need not conform to expectations of genre or ideology. That, in fact, they must not. Even in the crucible, that is all public performance and culture. Even when celebrities and songs have become so tied to the political binary. Especially so.
And, says the Haemek Davar, the Torah too, cannot be boxed in or reduced to one interpretation or set of talking points. Write down this Song for Yourself. And cherish that the Original Artist gives you the blessing to cover it in your own way and will lend a Voice when you sing.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.