Musical Settings: La'asok B'divrei Torah
Wasn't it Thomas Edison who said: Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? That may be true for some endeavors, but songwriting is different. When composing liturgical music I rely 100% on IN-spiration. Without inspiration, whatever I come up with just won’t mean as much as it could. I look for inspiration within the words of the siddur. When I come across a prayer I want to set to music, I think about three things. First, the meaning of the words. Second, the sound of the words, especially the rhythm. Third, the context of the prayer within the service - is it a quiet, introspective moment, or a joyous, ecstatic one? Am I writing for children, congregants, choir, or cantors? If I know whom the song is for and how it will be used, I can try to channel those feelings into the music.
Before I was asked to compose the music for Laasok B'divrei Torah, I was not aware of any existing song for the blessing. When there is no recognized tune for a prayer, we cantors often chant the words in a kind of quasi improvisation, derived usually from the appropriate nusach (prayer mode) for the service. At the beginning of the weekday morning service we use a simple chant which has been called "morning minor" (it is similar to the Bar’chu melody used for thealiyah to the Torah; the technical name for this prayer mode is Magen Avot). Here is how I might chant the Laasok blessing using that simple nusach tune. Listen
Having chanted this blessing so many times, I never thought about setting it to music. As I mentioned, it took a special occasion and the request for a new song to inspire me. In 1985 when I was cantor of Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois, I got a call from Dr. Betsy Katz, a master Jewish Educator and Chairperson for the upcoming CAJE Conference (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) to be held near Chicago. She thought it would be a wonderful idea to compose a new song for CAJE, one based on a core principle of Jewish education. The song would be premiered at the opening ceremony and (hopefully) within 10 minutes, a few thousand Jewish educators from throughout the USA and beyond would be singing this new tune. If the song were successful, it would be carried forth from CAJE to Jewish schools around the world. We decided that Laasok B'divrei Torah would provide the prefect text.
At first, I thought it would be easy. I was overly optimistic. The melody had to be simple and catchy, though not trite. It had to be Hebraically correct, and spirited, and inspirational. Most important, it had to express the meaning of the words. It had to be a blessing that students and teachers could sing together.
I realized straight away that most of the song was a blessing formula that already has hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes already. The rest of the song - the important part - had three words! (Maybe there was a bit of Edison's 'perspiration' involved,) I decided to make the three special words, " Laasok B'divrei Torah", comprise the refrain. When you listen to the melody for the refrain you'll notice that none of the four lines are the same. Listen The first line goes up, the second goes down, then quickly up on the last note. The third line goes up, down, then hangs right in the middle, and the forth line goes down, but with a surprise penultimate note that foreshadows a different mode, the Ahavah Raba, which enters the service at a later point. My purpose in having lines go up, then down, was to suggest that Torah is "not in the heavens or beyond the sea" but rather based in our earthly existence, living within our hearts and minds.
Once the refrain was settled I had to come up with a melody for the opening blessing formula. My inspiration for that tune (“Baruch ata...”) was the popular Latin flavored Israeli music I fell in love with in Israel when I lived there in 1982. You can hear that style in the wonderful music of Mati Caspi, David Broza and Yehudiit Ravitz.
When I had the first two parts of the song completed I realized it needed a third contrasting section, so I composed a bridge. It begins with " V'tzivanu", symbolizing the commanded-ness of study. And then it was done. Though I like the melody for the third section, it is often omitted from the song, even when I sing it. Sometimes we have to remember that less is more. I hope you enjoy hearing and singing my melody as you daven from our wonderful new siddur. This recording, released here for the first time, is how it sounded back in 1985, when it was new and fresh.
Cantor Jeff Klepper was invested by the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980. He currently serves Temple Sinai of Sharon, MA. Cantor Klepper is well known for his musical compositions, and for his musical partnership with Rabbi Danny Freelander as part of the duo Kol B’seder.