Holidays Eych Nashir: How Can We Sing in Exile?

By Rabbi Mónica Gomery
monica gomery

sung:

By the waters of Babylon
We laid our lyres down
Laid our lyres down
We sat and cried

By the waters of Babylon
We sang no sacred songs
Sang no sacred songs
Our tongues were (pause) tied

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept, remembering Zion.” 

The scene is early diaspora, after the Destruction of the First Temple, in the year 586 BCE. The Babylonians have conquered Jerusalem, and taken Jewish captives. From these captives, they request, or perhaps demand, a song. “How could we possibly do that?” the captives respond.

שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ

We sat, we cried, we remembered. And, we hung up our harps.

There are actually three different versions of what happened to the harps of the Temple when Jerusalem was invaded. 

Some midrashim imagine that the harps never made it out of the Temple—the Leviim, the musical priests, jumped into the fires with their instruments—lost forever.

Another version tells us that two head priests fled and hid the instruments somewhere, not to be revealed until olam haba, the world to come. 

The third version is Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept.

  עַל עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ.

On the branches of the willows, on the banks of the rivers, on the shores of diaspora, we hung up our harps.

In grief, we surrendered our music

It is said that in every generation, there are Jews who search every tree along the banks of what was ancient Babylon, looking for the instruments we lost. 

We have been in search of our music ever since our first exile as a people. We’ve traversed every continent of the world, listening for it. Longing to recognize something. To find the music that is possible on the other side of loss. 

***

Two years ago I interviewed at Kol Tzedek on the first Shabbat after the white supremacist massacre at the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had been preparing for weeks to come to Philly—to stand before this congregation I so admired and already loved, to ask your permission to carry our community forward in song. Two days before the shooting in Pittsburgh, two black supermarket shoppers were shot in Kentucky, by a shooter who had tried and failed to first enter a black church just minutes before. 

As I prepared to come to Philly, we were collectively reminded that our houses of worship have been, and continue to be, under attack, as well as every other place where we, and those we love, might spend our time.

By the time I arrived in Philly, I had scrapped most of what I planned to teach, instead carrying with me a nine page song sheet, full of every song I knew that could be a container for grief, rage, and healing. 

After services on Shabbat afternoon, we sat close together in the Calvary chapel. 

שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם בָּכִ֑ינוּ  

We sang and we wept. We found the medicine we needed, stitching our voices together. 

And I knew, singing in that circle, that if I got the job, we would go through everything hard together as a community. We would face fascism and white supremacy and climate crisis, and personal losses, and horrible things I couldn’t even conceive of yet. We’d go through everything hard, but we would get through it singing, together. 

And we did. 

כל המאריך באמן מאריכין לו ימיו ושנותיו

The Talmud teaches: One who extends the singing of their “amen” extends one’s life.

I’ve experienced my time at Kol Tzedek as one long, continuous amen, stretched across weeks and months and holidays, b’nei mitzvahs, funerals, baby namings, and shabbat after shabbat. 

Stretched across swirling circles of niggunim in the streets on Simchat Torah; pulsing, pleading song in candlelight at Selichot; Community sings stomping our feet to the rhythms of Zemirot from Iraq, Hungary, Portugal, Tunisia, Poland; Parents and kids singing buena semana to each other at Torah school havdalah. We’ve sat on the floor of CCS singing the lamentations of Tisha B’av and we’ve crowded together in front of the ark at Calvary for those last moments of Neilah, our voices building a bridge between one year and the next, our collective resonance generating the bravery and vulnerability we need for another year of life. 

Oh, how we have elongated our amen! 

The sound of a community weaving our lives together note by note, and breath by breath.

***

Fast forward 2 years.

It’s Friday night in the spring of 2020. 

I’m sitting at my kitchen table, in front of my computer. In one hand, I’m holding an open siddur, and with the other I’m navigating the trackpad. The sanctuary in the cloud is open on Zoom, many of you there with me. I’m singing Psalms for Kabbalat Shabbat into my headphones. My dog is running circles around me and periodically chewing on my tzitzit. And on my feet, out of the frame, are my penguin house slippers, stomping percussion. 

And while everything about this is strange, what really stands out is that I cannot hear anyone else singing. 

This is not how I imagined us getting through hard times. 

And the worst part is that I know you’re feeling it too. Where are the harmonies? Where are the sounds of babies and toddlers? Where is the felt sense of bodies and breath?

We find ourselves today in a new kind of exile. 

Unable to weave our voices together in real time and create those intimate, resonant singing spaces we’ve come to treasure as a community. 

תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי

The psalmist writes, my tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth. I will sing no longer.

***

The question of whether or not we can sing is almost as old as Judaism itself. 

אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר

Crying out from exile, the psalmist asks: “How can we sing G!d’s song in a strange land?” 

When we are displaced from what we know, when we are submerged in the unfamiliar, and overpowered by a cruel and corrupt empire, how can we make music? 

I’ve asked myself this question before, on a personal level. In times of great loss, I have, sometimes for months or years at a time, found myself spiritually, and even physically, unable to sing. We all grieve differently, but I’ve spoken to many people over the years about this phenomenon, people who love to sing; and then lose their connection to song when flat-lined by grief. 

The growing fields of trauma therapy and somatics have taught us that the body, not the brain, is the primary site of human healing. The traumas we experience in our lifetimes, plus the historical legacies of trauma that we all in some way carry, are housed in our nervous system. Our resilience lies in our ability to slow down, breathe deep, and open up more space within our bodies. For millennia, Jewish rituals and practices have been designed for just that, and at their core is song.

Despite our uncertainty over whether, or how, to sing through our exile, Jews have sung. We’ve spent centuries filling our wandering and our broken hearts with music. 

Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who lived during WWII in occupied Amsterdam, was later sent to various concentration camps. From the train en route to Auschwitz, where she died, Etty dropped a note, which read, ‘We left the camp singing.’

We’ve sung through our sadness and loss, and we have sung through our joys and celebrations. Our diaspora is woven from the music of the vast and various lands we’ve inhabited. We’ve been searching for our lost harps on the banks of every river across the world for a long time. 

And in that search, at every turn, we’ve created the music we need. 

And we need song now, for so many reasons. 

This past summer I read the book My Grandmother’s Hands, by therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem—a study of the embodied impact of racialized trauma on Americans. Menakem’s book is filled with practices and exercises that readers are meant to do in order to begin a body-based healing journey from the traumatic impacts of white supremacist culture. 

There isn’t a chapter in Menakem’s book where he doesn’t recommend that we sing. He encourages us to hum, to use our voices in an experiment of tones, volumes and vibrations, to sing a soothing tune as we rock slowly from side to side or forward and back. Sound familiar? 

Sing aloud to yourself, he writes. Chant a word or phrase over and over. From there he directs us to do the same with others, in small groups and then bigger groups, in groups of known and unknown people. “Unfortunately,” Menakem writes, “much of what Americans say and do is designed to keep our bodies out of harmony with each other. The first step in changing this dynamic is [somatically] settling our own bodies, one by one… The next step is bringing that settling out into the world and getting our bodies in sync with other [bodies].”

Singing, it turns out, is not only something we do to comfort ourselves. It actually heals our bodies. And this healing is part of revolutionary and liberatory work. All of us carry the lasting, multi-generational impacts of oppressive systems in our bodies. When we sing, we start to dislodge the clutch of supremacy and racism from our actual DNA.  

We are living through a time of unrelenting and compounded traumas. I don’t have to tell you what they are—each of us in this space carries anxiety, rage, heartbreak and fear in heightened ways, built up over the past six months, the last 400 years, and several millennia.

Our nervous systems are fried. We need to sing.

And we need each other. Singing on my own into my computer at services, I find myself wishing more than anything that I could sing both melody and harmony for all of you. Of course, that’s not how it works. One old Hasidic story tells of a well-loved hazzan who died and was summoned to sing before the heavenly courts. When he arrived, the cantor insisted that he wouldn’t be able to sing beautifully without his bass singer there to join him. So the heavenly court waited until the bass singer too had died, and then the two sang together in heaven. Music is meant to be shared. Song is mutual aid in action.

It has been hard to know how to grieve the loss of communal singing. Within our larger context of material losses, communal singing isn’t always recognizable as a concrete loss. And yet, to process the other losses of this time, we need, more than ever, to rock, hum and resonate together. 

אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר

How can we sing G!d’s song in a strange land? 

How can we turn to singing, as a spiritual resource, when we are in exile from song itself?

At Kol Tzedek, we’ve done our imperfect best so far. Every Shabbat I look out at pages of zoom screens and see heads tipped back, mouths wide open, eyes closed in praise, shoulders shaking with sound. 

אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם, וּלְשׁונֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמון גַּלָּיו

were our mouths filled with song as the sea,  and our tongues singing endlessly like waves

אֵין אֲנַחְנוּ ,מַסְפִּיקִים לְהודות לְךָ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ 

we would still be unable to fully express our gratitude to you, Holy One, G!d of our ancestors.  

Even our ancient liturgy reminds us that what we sing out in prayer is always an approximation at best, a helek, a portion, of what we feel and know in our depths to be true.  

Early on in the pandemic, I received many messages about the best apps musicians were using to create real-time harmonies, even to sing rounds. A  cappella, Harmony Helper, SoundJack, Garage Band. I appreciated the creativity of these solutions, but ultimately I felt resistant. They seemed to suggest that instead of grieving our loss, and acknowledging this new unknown terrain, we should adapt quickly and do our best to cheerfully imitate community singing on these new mediums. It did help to watch those fun videos of many separate singers edited together into a unison of voices. But it could only help so much. 

I think the psalmist is asking us a deeper question than “how can we best imitate what we’ve lost?”

אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר

What will sustain our singing in this strange land? How will we feel connected?

First, we can allow ourselves the heartbreak. 

Six months is a LONG time to be displaced from a core spiritual practice. There is no app that can restore what we’ve lost. Fortunately, our tradition offers something else to fill that hole. 

***

It is taught in Masechet Megilla: Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One.

 שבכל מקום שגלו 

That in every place they were exiled

 שכינה עמהן

the Shekhina went with them.

גלו למצרים, שכינה עמהן…

גלו לבבל שכינה עמהן…

They were exiled to Egypt, and the Shekhina went with them… 

They were exiled to Babylonia, and the Shekhina went with them.

Two thousand years ago, when our people experienced our paradigmatic exile, the rabbis emerged from the rubble, and created a new spiritual technology. This technology was called the Shekhina, and its core function is the theological assertion that no matter how isolated we may feel, we are never, any of us, fully alone.

The word Shekhina is derived from the root shin-chaf-nun—to settle, inhabit, or dwell. Shekhina comes to mean specifically a dwelling or settling of divine presence. From this same root we get mishkan, a dwelling place. We get shachen, a neighbor. In the pandemic, the word “neighbor” has become essential. Check in on your neighbors, can I pick something up for you, neighbor? For the rabbis, the Shekhina is an aspect of G!d that accompanies us, dwelling alongside us in the earthly realm. From the loneliness of exile, they taught that we are always neighbors with G!d. 

As with all things, the rabbis disagreed and debated the limits of the Shekhina’s omnipresence. Some argued that the Shekhina could only live in the land of Israel and could only be felt lingering in the vicinity of the fallen Temple. Others argued: 

שכינה בכל מקום

the Shekhina is found in every place. 

The Talmud is replete with teachings about the Shekhina. In Masechet Brachot we learn that when ten people gather in prayer, the Shekhina is with them. And, believe it or not the text goes on to say, when even one person sits alone and engages in the study of Torah, the Shekhina is there with them. 

The Rabbis don’t ask: “Is it possible that when we study alone, G!d’s presence is with us?” Rather they frame the question in a particular way: “מנין, From where in the Torah do we derive that which we already know, which is that even in our isolation and singularity, the Shekhina is with us?” Their question assumes that the answer is already clear: of course G!d is with us

I can imagine the sugya the rabbis would have written if they had been present in our time— “How do we know that when one sings alone over Zoom, the Shekhina is with them?” Not, “Is G!d present?” But rather—we already know that each of us is accompanied by something sacred, something that witnesses us. And how do we know that? Because ours is a tradition that has known, intimately, the hole in the heart, the bottomless well of loss. 

From Abraham Abulafia, a 13th century Spanish Kabbalist:

“It is known that in a hollowed out or pierced space, a sound is heard more strongly, because of the spiritual atmosphere created there. Like a harp or other instrument, which generates sound without speech, like drafty hallways on high floors, or caverns, mountains, bathhouses or empty buildings. Their atmosphere is hollow, and sounds are generated there with the clarity of a speaking voice… Remember that the human body is all holes and hollows, and from this we can understand that the Shekhina dwells in the cavities of the body, the holes within us can generate sound.”

We are never alone because we are echoed. And that presence emerges from the wounds within us, the places where the world has bored right through us, the place where the sound of our community in collective song has been recently scooped away. 

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Ari Lev taught us about teshuva, a spiritual technology born in exile, to nurture us in diaspora. The Shekhina is another spiritual resource in our exilic toolkit. 

Think back with me to my kitchen table on a Friday night: Each of us on a screen in our own homes, chaotic and beautiful, separate but together. The unseen truth of what’s really happening on those Shabbat evenings, and today as we sing our way through Yom Kippur, is that the Shekhina has entered the room. 

אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר

How can we sing G!d’s song in a strange land? 

Nechar, strange, shares the same three letters as kinor, harp. 

We looked and looked for our harps in exile, and they were right here for us all along. The strange land is G!d’s song. We have traveled to it, beyond that which we know or could have imagined. On the wings of the Shekhina—Divine Presence who journeys, G!d of dispersion, G!d in flight. Sacredness which cannot be contained to any one place. G!d of diaspora. Who hears our melody and responds in harmony.  

sung:

If I forget you Jerusalem
I’ll play no more again
Play no more again
Not one more time

Won’t you show me Jerusalem
Razed and broken
Razed and broken
Alone on high

May our brokenness bring forth our song. May we know that we never, ever truly sing alone. Even when we’re on mute, even when we feel like there’s no one else on earth who understands what we’re going through, there is a vibration, a holiness, accompanying each of us. May we conjure it through our longing and our need—that still small voice, filling the cracks, and singing, really singing, G!d’s song in this strange land.

Gmar chatima tova and shanah tovah.


Rabbi Mónica Gomery is a lover of questions, community, language and song. She was honored to receive ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2017 and is a Music Director and Prayer Leader at Kol Tzedek in Philadelpahia, PA. In addition to her work at Kol Tzedek, she is a faculty member at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, and is a member of the founding leadership team of Let My People Sing! 

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