By Dr. Alan Corré
Spain is a land of song. Happy songs, sad songs, quick songs, slow songs, songs to listen to, songs to dance to. This is the story of a song called La Despedida (The Farewell) which was written in that country, oh, five hundred years ago. This song told of a gracious lady, who had to say goodbye to someone she loved very dearly. He was going on a journey, and she would not see him for several months. As his ship left the harbor, she sang gently to herself – sadly, because he was leaving, but not too sadly, because she was sure that, with God’s help, she would see him again.
Now this song, called La Despedida, became very popular in Spain, and everyone used to sing it or hum it as they went about their work. But, you know, fashions change, and new songs came along, and La Despedida was not heard as much as formerly. The people had other songs to sing, and La Despedida began to be forgotten. La Despedida wandered in solitude through the warm Spanish air, and only rarely found a place on the lips of someone who was trying to express the sadness of parting and the hope of return.
At that time there lived in Spain a large Jewish community. Many of them were doctors, professors and politicians who played an important part in the life of the country. But they were devoted to their religion too, and took especial pleasure in celebrating the festivals of the year when they wore their best clothes, ate the finest food they could afford, and honored the day with songs and gladness. Naturally, when the festival ended they were sad, and the only thing that consoled them was that, God willing, the festival would come to them again in peace.
On the last day of Passover one year, the people in the synagogue of a little Spanish town were reciting the Hallel. Now the Hallel consists of Psalms of rejoicing, yet the mood was one of sadness that the holiday was almost over. Soon, as was their custom, they would go to the nearby seashore and wave farewell to the departing holiday, as though it were one of the ships that departed so often from the waterport. Soon, the ordinary working days with all their worries would return. As the Cantor sang, the melody of La Despedida popped into his head, and he found it fitted the words of the Hallel remarkably well. “Why,” said the people, “that’s just the right tune. We are sad like the lady bidding farewell to her beloved; but not too sad, because surely the festival will come to us again.” And every year on the last day of the festivals, they sang that melody, and some of us still do.
Now we Jews are called by a Hebrew expression ‘am ‘olam which has at once two meanings. It means ancient people, because we have had a separate existence for many years, and people of our faith have lived in many different countries and epochs. And it means eternal people, because we continue even though great empires fall; because our weapon is not the sword, which breaks and rusts, but our history, and our customs, and our sacred writings, which are like that melody which lives on in the hearts and minds of those who love it; and time cannot erase it, nor can the sword cut it down. And it was very wise of that melody to attach itself to the eternal people, because thus it lives on in places far from its homeland.
So when you hum this melody, think of the lady and her beloved; and think of the Spanish Jews, who sang their sadness and their hope at the ending of a festival; and think of the honor it is to belong to the eternal people, in whose heritage you will find the beauty of the ages.