Some 44 years after releasing the now-famous song “American Pie,” Don MacLean has sold his original manuscript of the lyrics for $1.2 million dollars. While there has always been lots of speculation about the meaning of the lyrics, MacLean has always been rather coy about discussing them.
In the lead-up to the auction – perhaps in an attempt to drive up the price – he opened up just a little bit to discuss the words that many of us know by heart (at least the chorus!). Not surprisingly, he talked about the world becoming “less idyllic.” In other words, he saw the transition from the decade of the 60’s to the 70’s as being a major societal shift. He tried to capture that in a song and I think it’s fair to say that he succeeded in doing so.
It was certainly not the first time – nor the last! – that a major transition has been noted and memorialized in a song. Tomorrow morning, we will chant what many scholars consider the oldest section of the Torah – Moses’ “Song of the Sea.” The Israelites had escaped from Egypt, had eluded Pharaoh’s chariots and now stood on the edge of the wilderness to embark upon a frightening journey. Moses wrote a song to mark the moment. Not to be outdone, his sister Miriam did so as well.
Music is not only a powerful tool for memory. It elicits strong emotional and spiritual responses in us as well. So, it’s no surprise that music is such an important part of our tradition and our worship. Originally, that music included instruments – Miriam took up the timbrel and, in Psalm 150, we are told to praise God with a number of different instruments. With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, however, instruments were set aside. It was not until the late 19th Century that Jews would begin to add instruments to worship once again. It would take much longer for instruments to find their way into the Conservative movement.
For the past five years or so, we’ve slowly added instruments to our Friday Night Services. Recently, we’ve experimented with instruments on Saturday mornings as well. There is no halachic (legal) difference between playing a musical instrument on Friday night and playing one on Saturday morning. Shabbat is Shabbat. However, we are used to doing things a certain way. That is why we will be conducting some focus groups to discuss how we can make services more inviting and more participatory without discarding essential and meaningful components. (Details will be forthcoming soon!)
It seems, though, that we are at a transition point in the Jewish world. Many traditional congregations are going through a similar process (click here for an article that was published just yesterday). Perhaps, it’s time for a new song to mark this moment. Be a part of the conversation as we determine what that song will be and whether or not it will be accompanied by instruments.