Several years ago, Ariana was reading Bereshit (Genesis) and was reminded of a song. Inspired by the words in the story, she began to curate a list of songs that spoke to themes, characters, and stories that take place in the Torah. And thus, the Parsha playlist was born.
Over the years, I have created a number of Parsha playlists— sometimes when inspiration struck and sometimes for a particular occasion like a b’nai mitzvah or conversion or graduation or wedding.
Music is an incredible way to connect with the themes of the parsha. The songs on the playlist — mostly secular — sometimes directly reference parts of the Torah, but often don’t mention the holy book at all. However, if you listen carefully, so many of the songs we know and love can actually help tell the stories in the Torah and add a layer of emotion, humor, and understanding to the text we read each week. It’s an exciting challenge to try to put together a list of songs (18, to be exact) that can accompany the parsha and add a little something extra to the sweet joy of Torah.
Here are the songs for this week’s parsha in order of the narrative of the story, with a little explanation of how these songs help illuminate the people Israel’s flirtation with idol worship, Moses’ acquisition and subsequent destruction of the tablets, and the rekindling of the covenant with G-d through the revelation of G-d’s face, manner, and name. Enjoy + Shabbat Shalom!
Rebbetzin Ever Hanna
Our House — Madness
It’s the beginning of the parsha and things are moving along swimmingly in the desert. We’ve just gotten some detailed instructions about how to build the mishkan, the mobile temple that will travel with us through the desert. Members of the mixed multitude are being lifted up by G-d for their skills (think metal smithing and woodworking and construction work) and are getting busy building a place of worship. I like to imagine this synth-laden ’80’s jam playing over the opening scenes of Israelites gathering materials, measuring twice and cutting once, and polishing the laver, the hand washing basin. Little do they know what they’re soon going to do a 180 on this temple thing and commit one of the greatest transgressions in the Torah. Sigh.
House of Gold — Twenty One Pilots
Another Mishkan song, this time complete with G-d’s promise of: “I’ll put you on the map, I’ll cure you of disease.”
See also the second verse: “Let’s say we up and left this town and turned our future upside down. We’ll make pretend that you and me lived ever-after happily.” Clearly this song is about the Exodus and subsequent building of the Mishkan. Thanks, Twenty One Pilots.
10,000 Weight in Gold — The Head and the Heart
Everyone’s joining the temple, and to do so they’ve gotta pay up.
The parsha says, “This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.” Exodus 30:13.
It goes on to instruct the Israelites to make special oils for anointing the Mishkan to identify it as holy, with a lot of talk about 500 weight this and and 250 weight that. So this 10,000 weight song felt like a perfect fit. This song reminds us “10,000 weight in gold never feels like treasure until you lose it all,” which is some excellent foreshadowing.
Royals — Lorde
So it’s been mere weeks since the Israelites escaped Mitzrayim (Egypt) and got free. All of that plague-dodging, no time for the bread to rise, sea-crossing, timbrel dancing stuff has just occurred and this motley crew is trying to listen to Moses’ many instructions and build this beautiful place of worship and declare that they’re monotheists now. I like to imagine them renouncing the idol worship of the Egyptians while humming this little ditty about not having needing or wanting expensive material possessions. Also, it’s a fun irony because, you know, golden calf.
Tigers on a gold leash, y’all.
Heart of Gold — Neil Young
Just replace the word “heart” with the word “calf” and this song is totally about the misguided idol-making Israelites. Plus, this little tune includes some harmonica solos that’ll knock your gold earrings off.
Bury Our Friends — Sleater Kinney
Ok, now we’re really in trouble. People are flinging off their gold bracelets and those aforementioned earrings and chucking them all in a pot to melt ‘em down and make some idols. This riot girl song blares as we see the people Israel forget everything they were just doing and — ahem — exhume their idols.
They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore (where is that Moses guy, anyway and who is going to bring G-d to us if Moses is just chilling on the mountain forever?). The people are rioting, Aaron is smelting, and Moses is blissfully unaware.
Enjoy such uncannily appropriate lyrics as: “Make me a headline, I want to be that bold. Make me a spotlight, so I can see the gold,” “We live on dread in our own gilded age,” and “we speak in circles, we dance in code. Untame and hungry on fire in the cold.”
The people exhumed this idol and (spoiler alert) are about to bury some friends. They’re wild and weary but they won’t give in.
Clearly this song was written about idol worship in the desert. Thanks, Carrie Brownstein.
You’re so Vain — Carly Simon
Even without its references to “clouds” (another subtle theme in this playlist as G-d will soon appear to Moses again as a pillar of cloud outside of the Tent of Meeting) this song is filled with perfect lines for Moses to admonish the Israelites with.
They walk into the Mishkan like they’re walking onto a yacht, y’all.
They probably think this parsha’s about them.
Medicine — Guster
In this Israelite’s retort to Moses, they lean into the “medicine,” the traditions the G-ds that they used to know in Mitzryim and rebuke Moses’ trying to save them.
“Go on hero, you’re faking no one, not today. Stop this you're scaring me, don’t even know you now. Trying to rescue me, go save someone else, I’m way past gone."
It’s about to get ugly.
Burn — Phillipa Soo (Hamilton)
“He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.” Exodus 32:20
Moses is really mad, y’all. Like smash the tablets, smash the idol, light some stuff on fire mad. It’s almost like that time that Alexander Hamilton publicly wrote about his infidelity and Eliza sang the ballad to end all ballads. Sometimes, when you’ve been wronged, you just gotta burn it all down. Embody Moses’ heartbreak while you shout-sing, “you forfeit all rights to my heart, you forfeit your place in our bed”
Turn to Stone — Electric Light Orchestra
G-d is exasperated by the Israelites, who continue to be the most human and totally ignore all of the rules G-d transmits to them through Moses. Moses finds himself begging G-d to remember the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), and not wipe the people but Moses off of the face of the earth. Moses turns to stone, when G-d is gone, you know?
Not to mention, Moses just had a little incident with the stone tablets he was carrying down the mountain. It’s a double-stone entendre.
Just try to resist blasting this badass bridge: “'Cause you ain't coming home, why ain't you comin' home if I'm turnin' to stone. You've been gone for so long and I can't carry on. Yes, I'm turnin', I'm turnin’ I’m turnin' to stone.” You can’t.
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover — Paul Simon
The Israelites definitely found one way to leave their lover, but Mr. Simon’s got 50 more.
Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free, amirite?
Both Sides Now — Joni Mitchell
We’ve arrived at the part of the movie where everything is in shambles, it seems like the plot will never resolve, and our fearless leader shuts himself in a tent to do some thinking — with the ever attentive G-d cloud hanging out right outside the entrance.
The incomparable Joni Mitchell brings us our second reference to clouds (“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now… I really don’t know clouds at all,” she croons), and puts into words the deep reflection Moses undertakes while he tries to figure out this mess and get G-d back on his good side. Imagine some slow fades of the people going about their business while the embers of the idol smolder around them, a shot of Aaron and Moses having an argument that we can’t hear, the sun setting on the desert, Moses lighting a lamp and laying down in the tent with the cloud outside — everyone’s in their feelings.
This version of Both Sides Now is from late in Joni’s career and she sings it in a much lower key as she’s no longer able to launch her voice into the high notes that defined her younger voice. It’s mellow, forlorn, and contemplative, just like Moses (and hopefully the people).
Plus, it always makes me think of that one scene in Love, Actually which is also the saddest thing ever. Enjoy!
What About Us — P!nk
In a little preview of Eicha (Lamentations), we get this P!nk banger where the people Israel find themselves asking “what about us?” Remember all of those promises you made us, G-d? Remember when you brought us out of Mitzryim? Why are we here?
Also let’s not forget our pal, Moses who boldly asks G-d to show G-d’s self to Moses:
“Moses said to the LORD, ‘See, You say to me, “Lead this people forward,’” but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor. Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.’” Exodus 33:12-13
Moses asks G-d to show him who he is in cahoots with. He demands to know what G-d is about, to understand what morals and values guide G-d’s actions, and to see G-d’s face and know G-d’s true name. This is an incredible moment of intimacy between G-d and Moses that builds the foundation for a collaborative covenant moving forward. Think of the people’s cries and Moses’ demand for real intimacy as P!nk wails “what about us?”
Say My Name — Hozier
YHVH — the ineffable, the unpronounceable. The tetragrammaton has already been introduced and written many times over in the Torah and its mystery is well established. As mentioned above, Moses demands that G-d say G-d’s name, but I also submit to you that this slow jam could be from G-d to Moses and the people, “You actin' kinda shady, ain't callin' me baby, why the sudden change?”
Either way, it’s clear that saying names, true names, is a G-dly act. Revealing one’s true self to another is a G-dly act. There is holiness in intimacy and in witness.
(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up — The Ronettes
It’s been a rough couple of days for Moses and G-d. Their relationship status was changed to “it’s complicated” for a hot minute, and Moses drew a line and demanded that G-d meet him in this relationship. We’ve seen some real lows so far in this parsha but things are about to get better. The Ronettes remind us, as Moses well knows, that the best part of breakin’ up is when you’re makin’ up.
I Would Die 4 U — Prince
Alright folks, we’re nearing the end — time for the fun-loving movie montage. This relationship is mending, the covenant is intact and the band is back together. Listen to Prince breathily sing “You're just a sinner I am told, be your fire when you're cold. Make you happy when you're sad, make you good when you are bad. I’m not a human, I am a dove. I’m your conscious, I am love. All I really need is to know that you believe,” while G-d and Moses share a picnic, carve some stone tablets, frolic through a field, and dance together by a fire.
Also, spoiler alert: Moses will have to make good on his promise to G-d that “I will die 4 u” a little later on. Poor Moshe.
Ray of Light — Madonna
“So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him.” Exodus 34:29.
Moses is literally glowing from his time on the mountain with G-d (could also be from those face masks of sacred incense that G-d and Moses did over their 40 days), and he comes down off of the mountain with rays of light around his head. The people are freaked out, but Moses finds a veil to wear around and things are good from there. Moses feels like he just got home, yanno?
Important to note that this passage includes a place where “ray” can also be translated as “horn,” which give birth to hundreds of years of antisemitic depictions of Moses and Jews at large (thx, Michelangelo).
The truth of what’s happening here is clear, however, Moses is literally aglow after his intimate divine encounter, awash with the light of G-d’s presence. May we, too, feel like we just got home when we see the divine up close in ourselves and others.
Shine — Collective Soul
Get out your lighters, this power ballad is bringing us home. This 1993 hit is the perfect closer for the long and intense journey of this parsha, and aptly leaves us with this:
“Give me a word, give me a sign. Show me where to look, tell me what will I find. Lay me on the ground, fly me in the sky. Show me where to look, tell me what will I find. Oh, heaven let your light shine down.”
Ken yehi ratzon (May it be so).