Parshat Vayishlach

“Songs in High Places”

By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. ‘10

High places have long fascinated the human imagination. In mythologies and cosmologies of disparate cultures, mountains and hills are depicted as spatial symbols of transcendence and meeting places between Heaven and Earth. Their closer proximity to the sky gives them a measure of sacredness, and they are often set aside for temples and shrines. The instinct to equate these elevated locales with supernatural forces is summarized by historian of religion, Mircea Eliade: “Every mythology has its sacred mountain, some more or less famous variation of Mount Olympus. All sky gods have certain high places set aside for their worship.”

The G-d of Israel was no exception. Though not conceived entirely as a heaven-bound deity, the sky was nevertheless thought of as G-d’s primary abode. Thus, when the Israelites sought out locations for cultic activities, their eyes turned toward the hills. These high places (bamot) were hubs of daily and holiday rituals, family celebrations and private devotion. When Jerusalem became the center of Israel’s cultic affairs, it was no accident that its Holy Temple consisted of a hilltop complex.

It is against this backdrop that we find Jacob telling his household, “Come, let us go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar there to the G-d who answered me when I was in distress and has been with me wherever I go” (Gen. 35:3). Bethel is where Jacob previously had his famous dream, in which he saw a heavenly stairway and was assured that he was heir to the patriarchal promise. That Bethel would induce such a dream is further testament to the mystical attraction of elevated places.

The elements of Israel’s high place shrines can be pieced together from biblical passages and existing remains. They were generally built on the tallest hill overlooking a town, and featured a stele, a seat for the deity, a wooden post, a water cistern and a stone altar for sacrifices. It is apparent as well that these raised temples radiated musical sounds. Along with regular worshipers who sang petition and praise, groups of prophets and musicians congregated at these sites to perform inspired, trance-like music. This is captured in 1 Samuel 10:5: “a band of prophets [will be] coming down from the shrine, preceded by lyres, timbrels, flutes, and harps, and they will be speaking in ecstasy.”

Other biblical verses describe the mountains themselves making prayerful music. For example, Psalm 98:8 declares: “the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the Lord.” As a metaphor, such imagery suggests that all things of nature—even inanimate rock formations—offer melodic gratitude to their creator. Indeed, the psalm also depicts rivers, seas and animal life joining the mountains in prayerful song. Yet even when multiple actors are listed in the chorus of creation, hills and mountains seem to possess especially mellifluous voices. Perhaps this is because of the close association of high places with ecstatic song. Biblical poets could not gaze at a mountain without hearing music, either coming from actual performers or swirling around in their heads.

This association is subtly preserved in the synagogue, where the high place (bamah) is replaced with the raised platform (bimah). Like an ancient high place, the synagogue podium symbolizes direct access to the divine. It is where the leader stands to conduct services, chants from the holy scrolls, and transforms the service of the altar (sacrifice) into the service of the heart (prayer). Whereas the hills were once alive with the sound of music, their modest replacement, the bimah, is now the locus of sacred music.

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