In this week's parsha, the Torah continues to tell us the story of Yosef and his brothers. When the famine continues to impact Yaakov’s family, the brothers return to Egypt to buy more food and this time they return with Binyamin, as per Yosef’s request. Yaakov tells the brothers: "Take from the choice products of the in your vessels and bring them to the man (Yosef) as a gift…”
The commentators have difficulty with the phrase "choice products of the land” as the literal meaning is “song of the land.” Onkolus translates it as “from the praiseworthy of the land” and Rashi explains that what Onkolus means is that what is praiseworthy is called song because “everyone sings (rejoices) that such a thing is found in the world.”
However, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains the phrase “זמרת הארץ” literally: “Yaakov Avinu, when he sent his ten tribes to Egypt, sent with them a melody of Eretz Yisrael to be sung before the ruler. Because Yaakov wanted to touch the soul of the leader of Egypt he sent his sons with a melody of Eretz Yisrael which has strong influence.”
Rabbi Nachman teaches us about the immense power of song and its ability to elevate man. So, when our ancestor Yaakov wanted to send with his sons a force which would have influence, he used the power of song. But what is song? After all, song is not part of Jewish law but merely a custom.
Judaism is made up of divine commandments that we received “from above to below” when we received Torah from heaven at Har Sinai. But Judaism is also made up of customs created by the people of Israel "from the bottom up."
For generations we have expressed our love for G-d by creating songs and melodies for the Creator of the world. From a halakhic standpoint it is clear that mitzvot “from above to below” are more binding than those “from the bottom up” and therefore, for example, it is preferable to have a Shabbat meal without song rather than singing songs full of devotion but without fulfilling the mitzvah of eating a Shabbat meal.
But on the other hand, there is a special virtue in song. Many times, it is song that manages to penetrate outer shells and into the soul and be the cause of change in a person. The emotional impression that song can cause is often greater than spoken words. Of course, it is preferable to learn the meaning of the words of a song, but the intensity can be so strong that even when the song is just a melody and has no words, or we do not understand the meaning of the words, it has an affect on us.
Music is part of an entire family of Jewish life which is not determined directly by halakha. In this family are also foods, traditions, prayers and poems (piyutim) and many other customs that create the special atmosphere of the many different branches of Judaism. These are the things that sometimes tend to be underestimated and said to be not the essence of the Torah. Halakhically this is true, but their effect on the psyche is enormous, and it is precisely these sorts of customs that keep the younger generation connected to Yiddishkeit.
What youth often lack is not logical proof of the existence of G-d, but the existence of customs. Therefore, we need to remember that the traditional Shabbat songs at the Shabbat table are part of our children’s education. If we sing Shabbat songs that were sung in the homes of our grandparents, the chances will increase that our grandchildren will sing the Shabbat songs that were sung in their grandparents' homes. There are many new and beautiful songs today, but they should not replace the Shabbat songs that have been sung for centuries.
The same is true of Shabbat and holiday foods. If our children eat the traditional foods that we grew up on, they will likely continue the tradition of the generations and prepare the same traditional foods for their children which helps cement the Shabbat and holidays deep into their souls. And yes, even the smells of Jewish cuisine are also of educational value.
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai Rabbinical Organization and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in