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The Song Remains the Same

A Torah portion of music and memory

Liel Leibovitz
September 11, 2009

Possessing both a Ph.D. in video games and a giddily infantile disposition, I spend more time than an adult should with a controller in hand, slaying pixilated baddies or solving convoluted puzzles. It is not uncommon for members of my subspecies—the Nerdis Naturalis—to emerge blinking into the dawn’s early light after a night, say, of multiplayer Halo tournaments, or to witness with quiet frustration one’s faculties abandon their usual interests—politics, art, work, loved ones—and focus instead on the plight of Hyrule and its woebegone princess, Zelda.

If the aforementioned references mean little to you, rejoice. Call your friends and plan to meet them out this weekend. Take a stroll by the river. Your life is unencumbered, free of the urge to save the virtual world or seek imaginary treasures, blissfully grounded and real. But if you’re like me, there’s a very good chance that you’ll be spending the coming days playing games. One game, to be exact: The Beatles: Rock Band.

You’ve heard about it, I presume? Read about it in every imaginable newspaper and magazine? Seen the barrage of commercials on television? If not, here’s a short summary: it’s a game that allows you to grab plastic instruments and—singing, drumming, and strumming along with the music on the screen—pretend to be a part of the greatest rock band in history.

The Internet, as is its solemn duty, has produced a slew of grumblers, grouches who claim the new game falls far short of the actual experience of real-life rock n’ roll. “Playing the Beatles Rock Band will deliver some joy,” wrote influential music blogger Bob Lefsetz, “but it has none of the visceral excitement you got the first time you heard ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’” Gamers, claim the naysayers, would spend a few hours amusing themselves with the Beatles’ video game, then move on to the next computer-generated thrill. They’re not really in it for the music.

But reports suggest that something much more meaningful is at play. Since its introduction in late 2007, Rock Band—the video game series of which the Beatles edition is the latest installment—has sold briskly, driving the downloads of more than 50 million songs. Put simply, this means that a swarm of young people, strangers to antiquated technologies such as CDs and unfamiliar with the roster of artists featured on the Rock Band titles—Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, The Who—used their gaming systems to familiarize themselves with music, a discovery that would have been improbable without the help of the brave, new technology. Video may have killed the radio star, but video games are rushing to the rescue.

Which is, perhaps, the way it has always been. To hear this week’s parasha tell it, we’ve always counted on great songs rolling down from one generation to the next, finding different platforms and different means of expression, providing inspiration when it’s needed most.

As the portion draws to an end, God summons Moses and Joshua to the Tent of Meeting. The aged leader, He says, is nearing the end of his days, and his chosen successor is in need of a sentimental education. When both men stand before Him, God delivers a short and sad speech. The children of Israel, He says, will abandon their divine covenant and worship other idols, and God in turn will hide His face and turn away from his chosen people.

But God is never one for hopelessness. Having delivered this grim account, here’s what the Almighty tells his servants: “And now,” He says, “write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”

And what a song it is! Here goes, in full:

“When I bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forefathers [to give them], a land flowing with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied, and live on the fat [of the land]. Then, they will turn to other deities and serve them, provoking Me and violating My covenant.

And it will be, when they will encounter many evils and troubles, this song will bear witness against them, for it will not be forgotten from the mouth of their offspring. For I know their inclination what they [are planning] to do today, [even] before I bring them in to the land which I have sworn [to give them].”

Moses, we are told, “wrote this song on that day, and taught it to the children of Israel.”

This heavenly authored song, of course, is not exactly the kind of stuff one would find on Rock Band. The beat, one suspects, wasn’t all that catchy, and the subject matter, to put it mildly, may cause paroxysms of existential doubt. But the point it makes couldn’t be more relevant to our own lives: no matter how malicious and mindless the era, the sweet music of redemption always plays on, waiting patiently for fresh ears and young mouths to discover it and sing its praises. The fathers may sin, but the sons and the daughters needn’t follow—all they have to do is turn to that good ol’ righteous rock n’ roll and discover for themselves the path to grace.

Which, I suspect, is precisely what’s going on at the moment. In groups or alone, on stage and online, young Jews are discovering Judaism’s ancient song and learning how to make it their own. Like the gamers who lined up this week for The Beatles: Rock Band, they, too, find the old way of doing things out of tune with their lives and sensibilities. To them, the synagogue is like that store that still sells CDs, a venue rich in nostalgia but lacking any real relevance in an age when music, freed of its corporeal forms by digital technology, could be downloaded onto one’s personal music player with the click of a button.

We should, of course, ask ourselves what these changes mean, and what effects they may have on both the personal and the communal levels. We should concern ourselves with the differences between listening to the Beatles and playing the Beatles in a video game, just as we should ask ourselves what young Jews are getting out of their more porous forms of connecting with their religion and heritage that they can’t find in Judaism’s traditional institutions. But we should never lose track of the fact that no matter the form, the content, the song itself, always remains the same, always playing on.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.