The power of music can help us to see something bigger

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The chant of the V’ahavta is one I know by heart. I can confidently close my prayerbook and my eyes and just sing.

It’s amazing how my mind remembers the melodic verses of Hebrew words I haven’t studied in years.

So when the time came to help my 10-year-old nephew, Jake, read the V’ahavta — a prayer that affirms one’s unconditional love for God and a commitment to study God’s teachings — I felt more than qualified to guide him line by line through the prayer.

Boy, was I wrong.

Pencil in hand, Jake started to read. He struggled to combine Hebrew letters with their vowels, often pausing between each word to look at me for approval. I did my best to assist him, but, at times, even I became tongue-tied without the V’ahavta melody to trigger my memory and allow the words to flow.

His frustration brewing, Jake continued. I couldn’t help but think back to the days when I was poring over the same visually daunting language and feeling the same way: mentally exhausted.

Hebrew school was a place where workbooks filled with unfamiliar prayers piled up on my desk. Where differentiating between a resh and a vav took hours. And it was there that I finally discovered the key to surviving my bat mitzvah: If you can chant it, you can say it.

Perhaps that same idea is true not just for prayer recitation, but for religion. Jake’s father, Robert, writes lyrics, sings and plays acoustic guitar. Music takes him to a place where he realizes there’s something bigger, something more powerful in the universe than what is visible or tangible.

The concept goes beyond a cantor’s harmony or a choir’s song.

Ten years ago, Robert, a self-described agnostic, wed my sister, Amy. Ten years ago, I was 15 and not particularly interested in the dynamics of their interfaith marriage.

But as Jake and my niece, Emma, started Hebrew school at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, I became more intrigued by the idea of an agnostic raising Jewish children.

My bro-in-law didn’t always consider himself an agnostic. Originally from Missouri, Robert grew up in an evangelical Christian home where every Sunday morning was spent in church. The Bible was read with a literal interpretation, a key component to fundamentalism.

Robert soon realized that many aspects of his family’s faith didn’t make sense to him.

“I don’t know what the truth is, and I don’t think we can know,” he explains. “I’m not going to treat other people and make public policy in a belief in something that I don’t know is true. That’s why I said to hell with it.”

And that’s when the words and melodies started to flow.

“There’s magic to the melody,” Robert tells me. “Why do I get all these melodies? Where do they come from? I think there’s magic and inspiration, and when you add the words, it speaks to me.”

He continues: “Whether it’s spiritual or my conscience, the music is coming from somewhere. It’s passed down from generations. It’s my experiences, my subconscious, my collective unconscious. All of that speaks to me, and if I wasn’t listening and writing it down, then I wouldn’t hear it.”

I admit I’m not quite in that place yet. I still remember the chants from prayers I learned as a child, but I am far from writing lyrics, poetry or even a few sentences that express my feelings toward spirituality.

It’s rare that I even take the time to put my day-to-day thoughts down on paper, let alone ones about my religious faith. Maybe it would even help me build a stronger connection to Judaism.

Luckily, we Jews have prayers as detailed as the V’ahavta, which give us spiritual guidance by reminding us how to follow God’s commandments. Keep a mezuzah on your door, wrap tefillin and teach these rituals to your children.

I am thrilled to be a part of my nephew’s bar mitzvah experience, especially when he starts learning the melodies to prayers I recited almost

13 years ago. And when Jake takes his place on the bimah, I know I’ll be even prouder.

Amanda Pazornik can be reached at [email protected].