When Jacob first hears the news that Joseph is alive and the vizier of Egypt, he refuses to believe it. Only when he heard Joseph’s message and saw the wagons Joseph had sent to transport him to Egypt does the Torah relate that “the spirit of their father Jacob revived” (Genesis 45:27). Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, returned to him. Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation, translates the “spirit” mentioned in the verse as the “spirit of prophecy.” Alluding to a rabbinic tradition, which states that prophecy only rests on those in a state of joy, he implies that since Jacob had learned of Joseph’s apparent death, he had been in a state of deep mourning. Consequently, for twenty-two years, the spirit of prophecy had left him.
The Midrash Hagadol (45:26) states that Serach, Jacob’s granddaughter, was sent to him and she played him soft, tranquil music while gently breaking the news to him through her song. Jacob blessed her for announcing the news to him in such a soothing, healing way and according to tradition she lived a remarkably long life. There is a deep connection between the notion that prophecy only rests on those in a state of joy and the Midrash relating the musical way in which Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive. In fact, the Tanach oftentimes makes the connection between music and prophecy, in general, and between music’s healing qualities and its connection to both joy and prophecy, in particular.
Nowhere are these relationships made clearer than in the stories of King Saul. At the very beginning of his career, the young Saul finds it hard to believe that God has chosen him to be king. The prophet Samuel reassures him that this is so and provides him with a number of signs to prove this. One of these signs was that Saul would “meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a lute and a timbrel, and a pipe and a lyre before them, and they shall prophesy and the spirit of God will come upon you and you will prophesy with them and you shall be turned into another man” (1 Samuel 10:5- 6). Saul in fact does meet the band of musical prophets and he too begins to prophesy.
Tradition explains that the band of prophets used music to create the proper spiritual atmosphere for the Divine spirit to rest upon them. Reflecting this use of music, the prophet Elisha was once approached by three kings who ask for his prophetic insight. He asked them to bring him a minstrel, and then the Tanach relates, “And it came to pass when the minstrel played, the hand of God came upon him” (2 Kings 3:15). Although there are many ways that Divine spirit and prophesy are expressed and manifest themselves, it is significant that music is considered one of those channels.
King Saul also serves to demonstrate music’s healing qualities. When he was king, he was often plagued by an “evil spirit.” His servants advised him to find a musician to calm his troubled soul. Saul agreed and asked them to find a musician who could both play and sing lyrics that would bring him peace of mind (Me’am Loez on 1 Samuel 16:17) A youth, later to be known as King David, had such skills and he was brought before the king. When an evil spirit would plague Saul, he would call for David to play for him, and the music would calm and heal his tormented soul.
This story teaches us that music has healing and therapeutic properties. Oftentimes a depressed or troubled mind will be soothed by listening to certain music. However, as Saul also teaches us, it is not only the melody, but sometimes the lyrics that go with it that touch us so deeply. If we were to read those same lyrics without the melody, it is doubtful the experience would have the same effect.
The Mishnah tells us how joyous music and song filled the air during Simchat Beit Hasho’evah, an event that took place in the Temple every year during Sukkot. The Sages describe how water was festively drawn each day from a spring in Jerusalem and brought in a great procession to the Temple altar over which it was poured. This libation symbolized the people’s prayer for rain and sustenance. Throughout the evening, the generation’s most illustrious Sages would lead the people in joyous singing and dancing — praising God to the accompaniment of the Levites who played on instruments too numerous to count. Summing up the incredible joy at this celebration, the Talmud states, “Anyone who has not seen Simchat Beit Hasho’evah has never really seen true joy” (Sukkah 5.1). Although on a peshat level, clearly only water was drawn, the words “Simchat Beit Hasho’evah” mean “The Joy of the House of Drawing.” What was actually drawn goes unmentioned. Responding to their own rhetorical question, the Sages explain that the spirit of prophecy was being drawn. Music, joy, and prophecy all met at this unique celebration.
Clearly Jewish mystics throughout the ages were well aware of music’s unique ability to create the spiritual atmosphere necessary to allow one to enter a deep meditative state of consciousness. A prophetic state can only be achieved through joy and this is the essential connection between prophecy and music, for nothing awakens and fuels the human spirit more than the joy inherent in music. It was the gentle music of Serach that enabled Jacob to absorb the awesome news that Joseph was still alive. It was her music that unlocked his grieving heart, allowing it to feel joy once more. (This insight was discussed in the first chapter of The Mystical Power of Music.)