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Sound is Touch at a Distance / Sermon by Jackie Novatt (Ha’azinu 9/23/23)

Sound is Touch at a Distance

If you listen to RadioLab, you heard this quote from Professor Anne Fernald on an amazing episode that was made in 2007 but re-aired earlier this month.  In this episode, they explore language, music, and sound – how they work, and their effects on our brains, bodies, and emotions. (added later – here’s the link to the podcast if you’re interested (

Sound is touch at a distance is both literal and metaphorical.

Literally, sounds are waves. Pulses of energy that travel through the air from whatever is producing the sound to our ear. Once in our ear, the energy moves bones which trigger tiny hairs inside our ear to bend. It’s the bending of these hairs that send the message to our brain that we heard something.   So, sound is literally touching and moving the bones and hairs in our ear from a distance, impacting our perception of the world. Sound is touch at a distance.

Metaphorically, sound can touch us emotionally. I’m sure you can think of a time when a sound brought you an unexpected wave of emotion – joy, sadness., fear. You might hear your wedding song, or the lullaby you sang to your child. You might hear sound of something falling followed by breaking glass.  Hearing the voice of a loved one can make us feel loved – just like a physical hug. Hearing angry voices can make us feel vulnerable and wounded – just like a physical punch.  Sound is touch at a distance.

Sometimes on musical shabbats we sing a song with the lyrics “when we sing we pray twice.” This phrase really struck me the first time I heard it, because it is so true. Music . . . structured sound . . .is a prayer without words.  When my grandfather passed away, I couldn’t find the words to express my feelings, so I took out my cello and played them out. When a loved one is ill, playing and singing Debbie Friedman’s Mi Sheberach brings comfort and hope. Music is a prayer without words. When we add words and sing our prayers, we really do pray twice. Sound is touch at a distance.

If you’re trying to influence someone, or to teach someone something so that they’re remember it, of course it’s important to pass on the content, but it is also important to connect with the person emotionally. We retain information so much better when it has an emotional impact. Proverbs 1:8 speaks to this. “Listen, my child, to the instruction of your father (musar avicha), and do not forsake the teaching of your mother (torat imecha).” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University explains that musar avicha, the teachings of the father, are about facts, (how to read and interpret texts, what to do and what not to do), while torat imecha, the teachings of the mother, convey emotional intelligence. The teachings of the father tell you what mitzvot to do. The teachings of the mother show you how to find joy in doing those mitzvot – how to feel the presence of G-d, not just how to know facts about G-d.

When I teach in pharmacy school, I use personal stories to help students see the human and emotional impact of the disease states we’re talking about – when they see how these diseases effect real people with real lives, when they make an emotional connection with the material, they’re more likely to remember what’s causing the disease and how to help people with that disease feel better.

Why am I talking about sound and emotion? With thanks to a fascinating analysis by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and thanks to my colleague and friend Abe Jeger for sharing this article with me, here is the connection.  In this week’s parsha, Moses sings a 70-line song to the people.  In this song, Moses predicts what will happen to the people, good and bad, and implores them to remember his teachings. Why does he sing this and not just say it? Because he knows that music, structured sound, is touch at a distance. Moses knew that if he really wanted to make an impact on the people, if he wanted them to remember his lessons long after he was gone, he had to impact not just their minds, but their hearts. He had to reach their emotions. Touching people emotionally, good or bad, is how you get them to internalize and remember what you’ve said or done. Think about it – what days of your childhood do you remember the most? I’m sure you had a hundred mornings where you woke up, got ready for school, and got to school ok. But you don’t remember those. You remember the mornings where something really really good or really really bad happened.  Because your emotions help cement memory. And what is one way to touch people emotionally so that they remember what you want to teach them?  Switch to song.

So . . . if you want to make an impact on others this year . . . if you want people to remember what you’ve taught them long after your encounter is over . . . connect with their emotions. Use your voice. Maybe even sing a song.   Because we remember when someone or something touches us emotionally . . .  and sound is touch at a distance.

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