“If you’re mind wanders before finishing this sentence, you’re not alone.” So began an article for Time magazine describing the challenge that many of us are facing with concentrating and focusing during these turbulent times. 

I am writing this as I take a break from writing a D’var Torah for Shabbos morning because I cannot seem to concentrate on a single message! Like many others, my ability to think for an extended amount of time has been severely impacted. But there’s another phenomenon which has received less attention – as our minds seem to be constricting, our hearts seem to be expanding. Politicians crying on national television, otherwise stoic people discussing their emotions – there is a tsunami of emotions that cannot be held back, and I think that’s great. 

This morning, the first day of the month of Elul, the shofar was blown in shul. (Well, to be precise, the ba’al tokeiah stood right outside the shul to prevent the spread of saliva particles.) The shofar, the tool used to “wake us from our slumber” is a musical instrument. It creates a rather crude sound, but it is music nonetheless. To prepare for the High Holidays, there is no message from the rabbi, no passage to study in groups, the wake-up call of Elul is song. And that’s because, no matter how distracted we are, no matter how hard it is to think about what we need to do in the year to come, music can cut through it all. It does’t speak to our brain, it speaks to our heart. Keith Richards, of Rolling Stones fame, said it best, “Music is a language that doesn’t speak in particular words, it speaks in emotion.” 

Instead of focusing on our faulty thinking patterns, perhaps we can use this month of Elul to develop and strengthen our emotions; deepening our love for our family and for God, experiencing more awe when we unravel layers of the people around us, acknowledge our lows and gently ride them through difficult times, infuse more joy into the otherwise mundane callings of life.  

Our minds may be struggling but our hearts are healthier than ever. The greatest tool to fan the flames of our emotions is music; the shofar in particular, but all the music of the world has the capacity to move us.   

I am dedicating this month of Elul to discussing music and emotions in our tradition. From the songs of the Leviim to the latest rap out of Lakewood, music penetrates the impenetrable. I will be sending out weekly thoughts on music and emotions before Shabbos and will be hosting a new Zoom series on the topic. Stay tuned for details. 

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you; what’s your favorite song and why? Music touches us in such a deep place, it’s worth taking a moment to better understand our musical taste. Please reply in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from you.

Good Shabbos! 

Yisrael Motzen