Every year at this time, a very specific song gets stuck in my head…
Rise, and shine, and give God your glory, glory ]x3
Children of the Lord.
This song has been a part of my Torah education since before I can remember. Not only does it make Torah and this week’s story of Noah memorable, with its fun rhymes and dance moves, but it makes it accessible to even the youngest of learners.
Thanks to this song, I know a number of things about Noah and his ark: I know that it was built with hickory barky-barky, it carried two of every animal including Elephants and Kangaroosie-roosies, and that after a voyage of 40 days everything was fine and dandy. If I knew nothing about Noah but this song, I might lack some detail, but I’d have a pretty good concept of his story.
It’s great to make Torah come alive with the arts. I’ve seen STorah Tellers (actors who perform the stories in Torah), artists create masterpieces on canvas and screen, dancers choreograph narratives and characters, and musicians make Torah come alive. Art, in all its forms, is a fantastic way to learn our tradition.
And, one song, one painting, one dance, is not enough to truly learn Torah.
Every artist tells the story from their own point of view, and has the constraints of their modality to deal with. A song can only be so long, a canvas only so big, a play can only have so many actors. Each re-telling gives us a glimpse into the story but could never tell the whole thing. The same is true with our original source document, the Torah itself. It is wonderful to read the verses that describe Noah as a righteous man in his generation, and how he sent out both a raven and a dove to find dry land after the rains. But just reading the words isn’t enough. It’s only just the beginning.
I find that when it comes to our understanding of our ancient stories and rituals, that we learn about them once. When we tell the story again, when we observe the holiday again, we focus on how we were first taught – likely when we were very, very young. Only occasionally do we introduce new modalities, or another layer of understanding to our cannon of Jewish experiences.
This ends up meaning that our knowledge of people like Noah, or observation of holidays like Chanukah (still a ways off, don’t worry) stay at the level of childhood understanding – memorable, but rarely with the complexity and curiosity that come with maturity.
Think about it, what do you really know about Noah? What do you think went through his mind when he was told that he and his family would be the sole survivors of a devastating flood? After all was said and done, how did Noah cope with his actions? Who was Noah outside of this one part of his life?
If the only thing you knew about Noah was the song, you’d never be able to answer these questions. If the only thing you ever wanted to know about Noah was the song, you’d probably never even ask the questions.
But we all know, people are complex, rituals are complicated, traditions are multifaceted. If we don’t explore the depth of what we know, we risk always staying children in the Jewish community. And as we grow and mature, staying children makes the richness of Judaism feel more and more foreign.
Widening and deepening our knowledge and connection to Judaism doesn’t have to be some great undertaking. It could be as simple as learning one new song (try PJ library’s various Spotify playlists or Alicia Jo Rabins), reading one more chapter (read Rabbi Shai Held or Dr. Norman Cohen), looking at one more painting (look at TALI virtual midrash).
Judaism is lifelong, as is Jewish learning. Torah doesn’t have to stay a child’s picture book, and our understanding of it doesn’t have to rest on the memorability of one camp song. It can be as rich and interactive as we make it.
However, for those interested in experiencing, or re-experiencing, that camp song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSxd9JVE3r4.