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The power of water and music

07/10/2019 09:08:36 AM


Cantor Leah Shafritz

This Shabbat, in parashat Chukat, we read of the death of the prophetess Miriam. In the verse immediately following, we learn that the Israelites were without water. In order to explain this juxtaposition of verses, writers of Midrash imagine that Miriam’s presence in the community was linked to a well, which followed the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. Miriam’s name even includes the word for water, yam, within it. You may be familiar with this link between Miriam and water through the inclusion of Miriam’s cup on our seder tables at Passover. We also associate Miriam with the crossing of the Red Sea — more water imagery — but more specifically as the figure leading the women in celebratory song and dance, accompanied by her timbral.
Later on in
Chukat — after the thirsty Israelites’ complaints, Moses’ rock-hitting incident and then more wandering — the community arrives at Be’er (literally “well”), where God has promised to bring forth water. Instead of simply digging, the Israelites sing! “Spring up oh well, sing to it.” (Num. 21:17)
As a cantor, these connections between water and music are not insignificant for me. Much like water, music is a sustaining force. Black slaves in the south sang as they worked and used songs to help one another escape on the Underground Railroad. There are accounts of prisoners in the concentration camps during the Holocaust writing and performing music to express their suffering, or their nostalgia, in order to cope with their circumstances. Music brings dementia patients to life, helping them to recall memories they ordinarily cannot.
In our own lives, music can bring comfort in times of illness, distress or mourning, quenching our spiritual thirst. In times of celebration, it can fill us to the brim with joy and gratitude. I feel privileged as a cantor to be able to draw from the well of music from our tradition, and I look forward to singing with the Temple Shalom community, sustaining us through song and prayer, and satiating our souls.

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780