The Power of Music
Several weeks ago, I was up in Baltimore to be with my parents while my mom had open heart surgery. Thank God, she is doing well, but it was (and still is) a long process. We are immensely grateful to her wonderful doctor and the incredible nurses and support staff at Johns Hopkins who helped her throughout her hospital stay. While my original plan was to be up north for five days, as I wanted to be back home for my daughter’s birthday, it quickly became clear that I wanted/needed to extend my trip until my mom was further along in her healing process.
For many long days, various family members camped out in the waiting room, as only one or two people were allowed to visit the patient at a time. During one of my visiting shifts, I asked if I could play some music for my mom.
“Ugh-no, I don’t want to listen to anything right now.”
That was three days post-op.
Knowing how important music is to my mom, I tried again a few days later and she acquiesced. The impetus for me asking again was an email I had received from a dear musician friend who was sharing one of her new releases. I’m not sure if my mom was actually feeling better, or she didn’t want to say no to me sharing a friend’s music, but I was so grateful that she said yes. I’m sure it helped that this new release was her favorite genre, a jazz song. Within a few seconds of hearing this music play through my iPhone, my mom began to cry. Now, it doesn’t take much to make her cry (and that is certainly a trait that I have inherited from her!), but she laid in her hospital bed listening to the music and just cried.
I brought her some tissues; she looked up at me and said, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I’m crying,”
“Are you kidding me, Mom? You’ve just had open heart surgery, and I imagine you are feeling a plethora of emotions leading up to and post-surgery. Please don’t apologize for crying. I’m actually glad that you are crying so you can release your emotions.”
“I just feel so happy when I hear this music,” she replied.
When the song ended, she turned to my dad and said, “You know how much I love music and how important it has always been to me.”
And with that, my dad went to my friend, Debbie’s, YouTube channel to play more of her songs. For the next two hours, my mom laid in her hospital bed singing along with Debbie’s recordings to her favorite jazz songs. I sat on the side and watched and kvelled, knowing that my mom’s soul had been touched and connected to Something greater than herself. I also felt a shift and knew from this point forward that she would be ok. I know she probably wouldn’t describe her experience this way, but to me, sitting on the side watching her, it actually felt like my mom was praying a jazz prayer.
She was been transported to other places and her soul was being
nourished and fed by the notes and pauses in between.
Music has the capacity to tap into the non-verbal parts of our humanity. Some refer to it as the soul, others might call it our energy field or consciousness. Whatever that place might be, it is where we find meaning, strength, and potential for growth.
After several hours, it was time for me to leave. I walked over to say goodbye to my mom; she shared, “You have no idea how much Debbie’s music helped me.” I smiled but didn’t say what I was thinking, “Actually, I do know, I know it well…because I’ve been there myself.”
This musical “reboot” or “soul activation” reminded me of a story I heard many years ago about the famous 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig who entered a small Orthodox synagogue in Berlin on the night of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre 1913. Rosenzweig, who was raised with a limited Jewish upbringing, and believed that Judaism was anachronistic and out of touch with the contemporary ways of the Western Europe, had planned to convert to Christianity in order to be accepted fully into German society. His intention was to say farewell to his Judaism by attending Kol Nidre services in 1913. However, something unexpected happened that night when he heard the music of the Kol Nidre prayer; he actually had a change of heart. The power of that experience changed the trajectory of Rosenzweig’s life, who subsequently decided to remain Jewish and went on to become one of the most well-known Jewish thinkers of the 20th century.
The power of music—
it can reboot us and connect us to our souls
in ways that words are not able.
What is it about the sound of the notes and the pauses in between that can touch us so deeply and profoundly? How is music able to reach us and transform us in ways that words cannot?
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman offers a thought about these questions when he writes about the Kol Nidre prayer and its music, “People mistakenly think that they cannot pray because they cannot believe. The reverse is true. Prayer compels belief, not the other way around. For a very brief moment, as Kol Nidre is chanted, we are in touch with the sacred and with our finitude; with those we love and with the broader human universe; with our own better selves and with the God we are not even sure we believe in.
I think that is what my mom felt through hearing the music that touched her soul. She felt alive in a way that she hadn’t since her heart procedure. I, too, believe that music, in general, “helps us connect with the broader human universe; with our own better selves and with the God we are not even sure we believe in.”
Have you had a powerful or transformative experience with music? If so, please hit respond to share your story with me. I’d love to hear it.
For those who are celebrating the High Holy Day season, may you be moved by the music and the prayers.
And may all of us be inspired by the power of music to connect to ourselves, to others, and to Source Energy that permeates creation.
Until next time,
Amy Grossblatt Pessah graduated magna cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis with a double B.A. in History and Jewish Near-Eastern Studies. She continued her education by attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion where she graduated with honors and received a Master’s degree in Jewish Education. In January 2019, Amy was ordained as a rabbi by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
A spiritual seeker since childhood, Amy has sought both experiential and intellectual paths on her quest for a deeper understanding to life’s most pressing questions such as “Why are we here?” and “What is our purpose?”
Throughout the years Amy has studied a variety of religions, participated in interfaith work, and has been a student of mindfulness and Jewish mysticism. As well, she has been trained in Spiritual Direction, Jewish energy healing, Reiki, Integrated Energy Therapy, and has completed 400 hours of chaplaincy hospice training. Whether in a classroom setting, a Spiritual Direction session, or in a hospital room, Amy strives to help individuals connect more deeply to their own inner wisdom and to the Source of All.
Amy has recently published her first book, Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children (Ben Yehuda Press, March 2020) which has received national praise.
Visit http://www.asoulfuljourney.com to learn more.