In my congregation’s Tanach study group, we recently focused on the story of Samson in the book of Judges. As we began our discussion, I played a clip of the song “If I Had My Way,” written by Reverend Gary Davis. As we moved into the text, it was clear that verse and song play a major role in this tale. Samson supposedly “said” his short rhyme (Judges 15:16) about picking up a donkey’s jawbone and using it to defend himself against the attack of 1,000 Philistine men. However, because in that moment “the spirit of the Eternal gripped him,” I wondered if Samson had sung those lines.
In the next chapter, Samson’s hair has been cut off thanks to Delilah’s power to persuade Samson to share the secret of his strength. His eyes have been put out and it seems he is at the mercy of the Philistines – but not completely. When the Philistines gather at the temple of their god, Dagon, to celebrate this great triumph over their Israelite adversary, they sing to their god who has delivered Samson into their hands (Judges 16:23-24). Our study group noted that the text would have been complete without the song of the Philistines. Why were these short choruses, chanted by the people, preserved in this passage? We concluded that the singing heightened the drama of the moment. It wasn’t simply a quiet sacrifice before the people, but a time to “make merry” at their victory over the supposedly powerless Samson. It is clear to the reader, but not to the unsuspecting Philistines, that as Samson’s hair begins to grow back, he will have the strength to get back at the Philistines after they’ve made him dance for them.
We know the rest of the story. The lyrics of the Reverend Gary Davis’ song declare, “If I had my way, I would tear this building down.” And so Samson does. Samson’s action stands in contrast to the Philistines’ celebratory singing and dancing (a misguided celebration, in the view of the biblical author). In a way, Rev. Davis’ song can be viewed as a long-delayed answer to the Philistine chanting against Samson – a midrash that gives the Israelite strong-man one last chance to sing with resolve and power.
Song is powerful as an expression of faith and spirit, adding an extra dimension to well-worded prose, whether in the Bible or other sacred texts, and even in our daily lives. We have just finished the celebration of Purim and are approaching the observance of Pesach. What would these holidays be without song? Imagine Purim with no music and no Purim spiel. Imagine a Passover seder with no singing of the Four Questions, “Dayenu,” the Hallel psalms, or “Chad Gadya.” And what would these holidays be without newly-composed melodies and new songs that add meaning for us? On Purim, one of my favorite additions to the ‘Purim spiel in several verses’ genre is Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom’s “Megillah,” set to the tune of the Beatles’ “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” For Passover, Debbie Friedman’s “The Plague Song” and the Allards’ “Ten Plagues in Egypt Land” take a potentially difficult text and offer a perspective that includes learning the lesson that hatred and prejudice have a way of coming back to those who espouse such views.
In a recent class with my seventh graders, we took a look at Psalm 51. Each time we recite the Amidah (standing prayer) in our worship, we begin with the best-known verse from Psalm 51, “Adonai, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.” Psalm 51 is noted as King David’s personal plea to God to ask for forgiveness and to forgive himself for the episode with Bathsheba. Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen practically wrote his own version of Psalm 51 with the song “Hallelujah,” which refers to this biblical story. Cohen speaks of “broken” hal’luyah, which appropriately describes those moments when we may feel unable or unworthy to praise God or to look positively at our lives. At those times, we especially need song and the voices of others singing with us to lift us up and to help us return to the joy of our lives.
Psalm 4 reminds us that God has put joy in our hearts. Whether on holidays, in worship, at times of need, or in moments of celebration, may we always remember to look into our hearts and “open our lips” to sing of the joy that is always within our reach!
Rabbi Larry Karol serves Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, NM. A Jewish singer/songwriter, he has released two CDs of original Jewish music and a songbook. Rabbi Karol blogs at RabbiLarryKarol.blogspot.com .