The Soul’s Language

Video 10 – Understanding Prayer: Heart, Mind and Soul

Kol Nidrei, the haunting melody that begins the holy of holies of Jewish time.

As we approached Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2017, Rabbi Sacks created a series of ten short videos to delve into what prayer really is, and how it can change your life.

Each video includes subtitles in: English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and Spanish (click on the Settings button in the bottom right-hand corner to select the required language).

Kol Nidrei, the haunting melody that begins the holy of holies of Jewish time.

What is it about Kol Nidrei that speaks so powerfully to the Jewish soul? It isn’t the words themselves, dry, prosaic, not poetry, not even a prayer. They’re a legal formula for the annulment of vows. So how did they come to have the significance, the power, that they do. I’ve written an essay on the history and meaning of Kol Nidrei in the Koren machzor, and I’m not going to try to summarise it now. But there’s another answer that has nothing to do with history or custom or law or the meaning of the words. Could it simply be that Kol Nidrei speaks to us – at least to us Ashkenazim – so powerfully because of the music? That haunting, evocative, sad yet defiant, tune that instantly takes us into the mood of this intensely holy night.

Perhaps that’s what prayer, faith, spirituality really are: more like music than speech, more like poetry than prose. There’s something profoundly spiritual about song. When the Israelites crossed the miraculously divided Red Sea, they didn’t speak, they sang. When Moses was about to die, one of the last things he did was to teach the people a song. When Hannah finally had a child, she sang. When David wanted to express his innermost thoughts, he sang. When Jews celebrated at the Temple, they sang. Words are the language of the mind, but music is the language of the soul.

When we aspire to transcendence and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Music, said Jean Paul Richter, is “the poetry of the air.” Tolstoy called it “the shorthand of emotion.” Goethe said, “Religious worship cannot do without music.” The story of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs.

One of the most moving testimonies to this is the Psalm King David sang to God: “You turned my grief into dance; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent.” When the spirit soars, the soul sings.

And when we gather to pray, and our voices join those of others, the music opens our hearts, and releases our emotions and unlocks our minds, and for a moment we forget our narrow devices and desires and are brushed by the wings of the Shechinah. And afterward, we return to earth cleansed and re-energised. That is what prayer is: our song to God who lifts us when we fall, forgives us when we fail, and never ceases to believe in us, giving us the strength to continue and the power to grow.

In the coming year, may we sing God’s song, and may His blessings flow through us to the world.

This video was kindly sponsored by Denis and Michael Aaronson, in memory of their parents Freda & Leslie Aaronson.

We are grateful to all of the generous sponsors who helped enable us to produce this video series.