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Listening as a Way to Refine and Renew our Soul Power

Listening as a Way to Refine and Renew our Soul Power

Orchestra members in the string section seen from behind

We are living through a time of great anxiety. We face destabilizing fears about what is going to happen next and about the nature of our society and humanity itself. Daily events are not only disheartening, but soul numbing as well. With each new horror, we find our souls more immune; events that not so long ago would have brought us to tears now pass by barely noticed. Facing such a soul crisis, I look for more direct pathways to my emotions, to my spirit.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev knew about this kind of numb soul, and made an essential distinction between atzvut (pervasive sadness) and lev nishbar (broken-heartedness). Atzvut – the numbing of the soul – gets you nowhere, while lev nishbar is precious to God and central to our very humanity. Atzvut results from endlessly scrolling through Facebook posts and obsessively reading news articles with no time for feeling. According to Nachman, lev nishbar needs to be nurtured. A person should, daily, set aside time to feel – to engage emotionally – because only through the conscious creation of “feeling time” can the difficulties of the world be soul-refining rather than soul-numbing.

When I need to feel – to close off my rational thinking and pull out an emotional reaction – I listen to music that evokes the feelings I’m seeking. For this moment in history, I am drawn to two pieces, written by the most famous Jewish composers of the 20th century, that reflect their responses to a time of great anxiety and broken-heartedness.

The first, Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah Symphony” (1944), depicts the struggles of the prophet Jeremiah. Set in three movements, this piece for orchestra and soprano soloist evokes intense anxiety and grief. Jeremiah prophesied during the destruction of the first Temple and then, as the mythic author of the book of Lamentations, he captured the grief of its aftermath. The first movement, Prophesy, creates an ominous atmosphere. With sudden bursts of brass, cascading waves of pain from the strings, and a constant feeling of rhythmic instability, the music reflects the kind of anxiety I feel when my phone vibrates with another notification from The New York Times. The second movement, Profanation, uses the motifs of Haftarah trope as the voice of the prophet trying to break through the chaos. The themes are taken up by all the sections of the orchestra, sometimes proclaiming their strength, and sometimes mocking their inability to improve the human situation. The third movement, Lamentation, brings in the soloist, singing words from the Book of Lamentations, with music that echoes the unique trope of that scroll. At times raw and dramatic, and at other times sad and introspective, this movement never fails to touch me emotionally – cultivating and deepening Reb Nachman’s lev nishbar, and, conversely, keeping me away from atzvut.

Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning” (1947), a setting of Genesis 1:1-2:7 for acapella choir and soprano, is a powerful statement about the goodness of God’s creation, the dangers of man’s dominion, and the victory of humanity’s soul power. Each day of creation is set with lyricism and creativity, with musical gestures that paint the images of the text, crafting a magical sense of the perfection of the world. With the creation of humanity and the text’s description of our dominion over all other creatures, the music changes, becoming angular and angry. One can only assume that a Jewish composer in 1947 would be all too aware of the destructive potential of man’s dominion. But the piece does not end there; it continues on to the second creation of humanity, in which we are animated not only by God’s word, but by God’s very breath – “God blew into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7). Copland’s setting of this verse is triumphant in its optimism. It is my reminder that through all the horrors I read about and experience, my vision of the essential goodness of humanity cannot be diminished.

Each of us must do our own work to prevent the kind of soul-numbing that sends us deeper and deeper into atzvut, the kind of self-defeating sadness that tells us that there is no way forward, and that the easiest thing is to stop feeling at all. Take your time to feel. Find, and cultivate that lev nishbar that is so precious to God – precisely because it is motivating and ultimately hopeful even in its sadness. To face tomorrow and whatever it brings, we will need every ounce of soul force available to us.

Cantor David Berger is the cantor at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, IL, a board member of the American Conference of Cantors, and a Ph.D. student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Learn more about him, his music, and his teaching at

Cantor David Berger

Published: 9/04/2017

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture
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