Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
In his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the great Romantic poet John Keats described how he dreamily gazed at the scenes portrayed on an urn, scenes of beauty and happiness that for centuries have been on the verge of reaching their culmination. We do not know how those scenes actually played themselves out, if their fruition was as tasty as their promise. And that’s okay. He prefers it to remain that way. Because “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Very often harsh, concrete reality is quite imperfect, and often does not attain the sweetness contained in the imagining and striving for that reality and those scenes. Melodies anticipated and imagined can at times bring more contentment than their manifestation in the real world, the romantic Keats believed, and something real can only be disappointing compared to the imaginary.
In Jewish mystical tradition, we find a seemingly similar idea about the sweetness of silence.
On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the shofar is blown. But according to the mystics…the booming, piercing sound that’s heard….is actually silence. It is the unheard melody of the heart which is incomparably sweeter than the melody of the mouth.
Their heart cried unto the Lord…
Lamentations (Eicha) 2:18
There is a running of the soul to God that is expressed through silence. When the soul’s yearning for the Divine has become so passionate and desperate, it is no longer able to be expressed vocally, but it rather cries out from the heart an ineffable scream—and that can only be manifested through the Cry of the Shofar, which the Zohar refers to as “An inner voice that can never be heard.”
--Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch
We do hear the melody of the shofar. But we are hearing the Sound of Silence. The sweetest melodies, usually unheard, are being sung.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are
written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence…”
--Simon and Garfunkel
The shofar transforms us into those prophets. And the synagogue becomes the subway wall and the tenement hall where the deepest type of communication is taking place.
But we do not have the dread of flawed expression by which Keats was assailed. The Jewish Mystic on Rosh Hashanna is not seeking utter, literal, and total silence. He is not afraid that the melody as it reaches physical, heard reality will be disappointing and lacking.
He does not say, as Keats does,
therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
For the shofar is heard, it is expressed. Its melody is loud and clear.
And yet—it retains all the sweetness.
To the extent that…the Hebrew word “shofar” is derived from the words for beauty and pleasure, and on the High Holiday, we actually say in our prayers that with the unheard melody of the shofar, we "seduce" God Himself…
What is so beautiful, what “seduces” God, by the shofar expressing the ineffable? What does it mean to make the unheard melody…heard?
To be continued....