Culture, Religion

Counting the Omer in Song: Hesed and Sault

For each week of the Counting of the Omer, we plan one or two (or more, if the motivation strikes) posts that tie the theme of the week to songs/artists that do not come from within Judaism but whose approach to indie rock, punk, hip-hop, neo-soul, Afrobeat, or other modern genres resonate with the essence of the kabbalistic tradition of counting the 49 days between the second day of Pesach and beginning of Shavuot.

In general, the tradition focuses on the seven themes that reflect the attributes connecting humans to G-d: Hesed – loving kindness, G’vurah – judgement/discipline, Tifereth – beauty, Netzach – victory, Hod – glory, Yesod – foundation, and Malchut – kingdom. Each theme is then explored through the others, i.e. in the first week we look at lovingkindness in lovingkindness (hesed b’hesed, Day 1), judgment in lovingkindness (g’vurah b’hesed, Day 2), beauty in lovingkindness (tifereth b’hesed, Day 3), and so on.

So for week one — Hesed/lovingkindess — we turn to 2020’s most important, and among its most mysterious, band: Sault. Sault is a UK-based neo-soul/funk/hip-hop/R&B/spoken word collective that released two “Untitled” albums in 2020, each with a parenthetical subtitle: (Black Is) and (Rise).

Over the last several years, but certainly since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which we are now painfully reliving during the trial of Derek Chauvin, confronting race and racism has been at the center of Hesed for many Jews and Jewish communities. Whether it be reckoning with how Jews of Color are included in our communities or examining our individual and community responsibility for why racism endures and what we must do to change, we see many congregations with BLM signs in their windows, new racial justice committees, strengthened outreach to black communities, and reading groups focused on anti-racist book lists.

And though much remains to be done, this is mostly as it should be. Confronting our own racism, as individuals, communities, and as a country, is essential to transforming who we are and embodying a future built on love rather than hate. It is a fraught path, to be sure, but one we cannot turn away from if we are to truly embody the core of Hesed.

Helpfully, Sault has provided two albums to guide this journey. Here are highlights from these two gems that reflect the themes of Week 1 of the Omer (full playlist can be found here):

Day 1 — Hesed b’hesed, love in love: Black Is from Untitled (Black Is). This is a spoken word track over top of a slow bass line and hushed singing. The spoken words emphasize what blackness is — “beautiful,” “sweet,” “love,” “ours,” “shiny and new/older than Earth/all at the same damn time,” and “G-d.” It is simple and powerful and a pure expression of love, rising above symbol and stereotype.

Day 2 — G’vurah b’hesed, discipline in love: Pray Up, Stay Up from Untitled (Black Is). This funk-infused gospel track that closes the album focuses on a repetition of the line “Pray up/Stay Up,” which is at the core of discipline. Under the beat and piano and chorus, there are lines like “they tryin’ to keep us down” but the track is rooted in sending the listener off with a motivation to stay in the fight, to remain disciplined, and to keep singing and dancing throughout.

Day 3 — Tifereth b’hesed, beauty in love: Bow, ft. Michael Kiwanuka from Untitled (Black Is). Nearly all of the songs focus on the black experience in the diaspora. This track takes the listener to Africa, with a survey of the continent and all of its beauty and power, mixed in with some of the many challenges. It’s a bass and percussion-heavy track that again keeps you dancing as you travel and center yourself around the splendors of Africa.

Day 4 — Netzach b’hesed, endurance in love: The Beginning & the End from Untitled (Rise). This track is a percussion-heavy song with spoken lyrics up top that lead to a broader call and response-type chorus. The lyrics are rooted in never giving up, never losing the focus on love of self and love of freedom: “We shall reclaim our joy/We shall remuster our strength, through milеnnia/Bathed in the tears of a thousand ancеstors, we shall rise/As it was in the beginning, so too shall it be in the end.” (Also listen to: Hard Life from Untitled (Black Is)).

Day 5 — Hod b’hesed, humility in love: You Know It Ain’t from Untitled (Rise). Along with every element of love must come from a recognition of our limitations. This track is a painful and brilliant reflection of that. Over top of a lilting and almost breezy track, we hear a spoken word retelling of the many lies black people hear from white people about our commitments and beliefs, and then being very clear about the response: “Yeah, I see your little post, talking ’bout ‘BLM is my motto’/But you know it ain’t/I see you over by the water cooler on your break talking ‘bout ‘Tanisha, your mental health is super important to me’/But you know it ain’t/You assume and surmise that educating you is somehow my responsibility/But you know it ain’t/Hundreds of years later, and still, you think your guilt is ours to bear/But you know it ain’t.”

Day 6 — Yesod b’hesed, bonding in love: Little Boy from Untitled (Rise). This quiet but gorgeous track centers on the painful bonding between a black parent and their son over what the boy will eventually face when dealing with the police. It is a conversation that white parents and their children do not have to have, and it is a bond that separates those who suffer at the hands of a racist system from those who enable it. “Little boy, little boy when you get older/You can ask me all the questions/And I’ll tell you the truth about the boys in blue/Little boy, little boy when you get older/And you’re searching for the answers/And the Lord’s truth for those who look like you.”

Day 7 — Malchut b’hesed, sovereignty in love: Free from Untitled (Rise). This infectious track ends the first week of reflections by rooting in God’s love and power. A brilliant mix of funk and pop underneath a powerful vocal performance focused on the singer telling a man in her life that she doesn’t need him, even if he can be powerful and heroic. But he’s not there when she needs him, reminding her that God and God’s love is there above all. And that freedom and humanity is ultimately rooted in that love. “Free, don’t give up for no one/’Cause God’s love is free/The silver lining fall/What will be will be/And we may feel alone/Free.”

Hope these bring some funk and dance into your approach to lovingkindness.

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