An art therapist from our community reflected upon the power of music for patients facing serious illness, and especially those nearing the end of their lives. When a person can no longer speak or connect in typical ways, they often can connect to familiar melodies and songs of prayer and feel uplift or relief for suffering. Sometimes a person who had long been without voice can be roused to join in song.
A growing body of research confirms these findings, indicating that music has been bound up with our humanity for over 43,000 years – and perhaps far longer when our voices served as the original instruments. A piece by Dr. Marilyn A. Mendoza in Psychology Today concludes, “Playing old, familiar songs can help to remind them of happier times and allows them to reflect on their lives and tell their life story.”
Yet the emotional and cognitive impact of music is not confined to those nearing the end of their lives. Music therapy also brings together loved ones and caregivers to the person and gives them a way to enter into grief and the full panoply of emotions as they prepare for loss. In a moment that transcends words, it provides a path to communication. It creates a sense of safety and familiarity – and for those who are more religiously inclined, even holiness.
Some palliative care providers are even helping those who are seriously ill select a playlist for passing – so that they can experience the comfort of songs that they know in their final moments of life. One might imagine such a notion expanding to other life-shaping moments of passage from one stage to another.
The notion of songs for passing may well predate recorded history, but is evident millennia ago in the Torah. In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were literally running for their lives. Death seemed to lurk around every corner. Yet as they crossed the parted sea, they did not cry or cower. They sang.
In Exodus 15: 1-2, we read:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said:
I will sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.
God is my strength and might;
God has become my deliverance….
The song Moses initiates continues for 17 more verses, inspiring awe among centuries of commentators, who imagine Moses and the Israelites singing responsively, or perhaps together in a rising chorus of joy.
One song leads to another, as we read in Exodus 15: 20-21:
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister [and Moses’ sister], took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to God, who has triumphed gloriously; and hurled Horse and driver [of the Egyptians] into the sea.
While we do not know many of the words that Miriam and the women sung, we can sense their ebullience and the intensity of their music and dance. In many respects, it feels like a song for a second kind of passing.
Moses’ song is one of war – of the passage from slavery to freedom in a feat against Egypt’s military, and with the lingering fear of capture or death. Miriam’s song is the passage from physical freedom to growing emotional freedom, of the surfacing of long-repressed human hopes. Hers is a song of emotional passage.
What is evident from the Torah’s songs, which later grow manifold in psalms and other sacred musical texts, is that they provide a shared trope, both musical and in narrative. The Israelites might not be able to describe their terrifying, death-defying passage to freedom or their outburst of joyful relief upon reaching the other side. But they know what they just saw and felt together.
While a growing body of scientific research validates the ancient precursors to music and art therapy, our ancestors knew in their bones the need to sing together to create shared meaning in times of life-shaping transition. Passing to physical freedom, passing to a mindset of freedom, or even passing from life itself. We continue to sing their songs – and add to them our own.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Joshua Stanton is rabbi at East End Temple in New York, NY).