Torah Reading for Week of November 27 – December 3, 2011
By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, ‘10
Musical references in the Hebrew Bible typically lack technical detail. Outside of the Book of Psalms, which includes many (though often obscure) musical terms, there is a scarcity of information regarding the nature of performance and sounds. Most hints of singing and instrument playing come from cursory remarks in passages concerned with other things. Yet, rather than assigning music a minor role, these scattered references show the pervasiveness of musical sounds in biblical life. As a rule, music’s appearance in any biblical context—no matter how brief or isolated—reflects a wider cultural phenomenon. Thus, we can assume that music was a regular accompaniment to work (Isa. 16:10), weddings (Jer. 25:10), drinking (Ps. 69:12) and numerous other activities. An example of this is found in Genesis 31:27, when Laban tracks down Jacob and asks, “Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre.”
In the chapters leading up to this encounter, Jacob flees from his brother Esau (27:43) and finds refuge with his uncle Laban in the Mesopotamian city of Haran (29:13-14). He falls for Laban’s daughter Rachel, and agrees to tend his uncle’s flocks for seven years as a bride price (29:18). When the period passes, Laban cheats Jacob by substituting his oldest daughter Leah for Rachel (29:23), and Jacob is compelled to work seven more years for Rachel (29:18-20). After that time, Jacob continues to work for Laban (30:25-34) and Laban carries on his deceitful ways (31:7). Jacob finally has enough and escapes Haran with his wives and children, only to be overtaken by Laban and his kinsmen in the hill country of Gilead (31:23). It is there that Laban demands to know why Jacob left without the proper musical send-off.
This story paints Laban as selfish, greedy and duplicitous. Yet, at the same time, he is shown as a man concerned with his family’s welfare and the preservation of societal norms. He made sure that his eldest daughter was married first, strived to keep his family close to home, and sought to uphold ceremonial customs—values still held in traditional cultures. This helps explain Laban’s anger at not having the opportunity to bid the party a dignified farewell. Of course, Laban’s professed hurt feelings should be judged in light of his manipulative nature; but there was some sincerity in his desire to facilitate a formal departure (31:28). As a traditionalist, Laban would have objected to the group leaving in any manner that differed from the standard way. This lends further credence to the idea that sending relatives off with “festive music, timbrel and lyre” was a well-established custom.
But what purpose does music serve in family occasions? After all, customs are usually preserved because they work. In the case of music at family departures, festive tones generate feelings of goodwill, encouragement, support and solidarity. The hearts and minds of those leaving and those staying behind are uplifted in musical revelry, and differences between or within the groups are swept aside in favor of the larger good. This is especially beneficial when relationships are strained or dysfunctional, as in the story of Jacob and Laban. Nowadays, this positive result is achieved when families sing zemirot around Shabbat and holiday tables. Apart from the religious needs they fulfill, these songs and the cooperation they require enable families to strengthen bonds, celebrate shared identity, and (temporarily) dissolve disputes.