By Leslie Shuman Kramer
We all have songs that make us remember—we associate them with high school, our first dance, summer camp, what we listen to when we jog, or go on road trips. Some songs can stop us cold, move us to sing along, nod our heads, or begin to dance no matter where we are when we hear them.
And then there are the childhood songs, like the Alphabet song that we sometimes sing through our head when trying to recall the order of the letters. Jim and I fondly recall the Schoolhouse Rock we heard on PBS as kids, like “Conjunction Junction” and “How a Bill Becomes a Law” and remember the lessons that apply.
In this week’s parsha we read about Moses’s last living day, where a song becomes both the memory and the instruction. The children of Israel are about to enter the land of Canaan, but Moses knows he will not join them, as G-d has told him that he will die atop Mount Nebo where G-d has led him to view the land from afar. After Moses gives his last speech to the children of Israel, G-d tells him to write down a song to teach to the Israelites. It wasn’t Moses, but it was G-d who decided that the way to imprint the telling of the story of the Israelites in their collective memory would be in a song. The Song reflects upon where they came from (wandering in the desert), where they were in real time (being brought into the land), foretelling the future (angering G-d by becoming complacent and fat with wealth and plenty, whereafter G-d would turn G-d’s face from them) and where and what would become of them in the future (G-d would ultimately protect G-d’s people from their enemies and reconcile with both them and the land). “Put this song in their mouths,” God says, “so that the words may become a witness for Me against them…. Then when many oppressive evils come upon them, this song will testify against them as witness.” (Nancy Reuben Greenfield, My Jewish Learning).
G-d foresaw that the children of Israel would stray. G-d told Moses to use the song to remind them-to remind us-of G-d, of our past, our present and of our future. This message was like a summary of where G-d stood with G-d’s people. Why did G-d choose a song as the teaching tool here? Why not another speech? Maybe the answer is in the question. That is, to the Israelites perhaps it would have been just another speech. They’d heard from Moses for a long time, he’d been leading them since Egypt. Perhaps G-d foresaw that this momentous occasion, as their great leader was dying and as they were about to reach the goal of their wandering, the Promised Land, a song would succeed in embedding G-d’s message in their minds. The message in the song was tied to the place and time it was taught to them.
Surely G-d understood that certain experiences trigger memories differently. So it is for us, at this time of year, as we celebrate our holiest of holidays, that our memories are created from the panoply of experiences. We might be moved by the tunes we sing in Temple, by the smell and taste of the special foods we eat, or from the feeling of sitting with our families and community in Synagogue, at the dining table, or in a Sukkah. Like our ancient ancestors learning a new song as they entered the Promised Land, we each have experiences that both create and trigger memories. May all of our moments be meaningful and memorable.
Leslie Shuman Kramer is the President of the Buffalo Jewish Federation.