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Yom Kippur 2013

Monday, 19 May 2014 | 19 Iyyar, 5774


A Flawed Violin

Yizkor Yom Kippur 2013

Rabbi Ralph Genende

In a Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007 a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle-aged man noticed the musician,stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule. 4 minutes later: the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat without stopping.6minutes later: a young man leaned briefly against the wall to listen, and then started to walk again. After 10 minutes: a 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. This action was repeated by several other children and parents. The musician played continuously for 45 minutes. Only 6 people stopped and listen for a short while. About 20 gave money, a total of $32. 1 hour passed:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew it, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days earlier, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the ticket prices averaged $100.

You can see this on YouTube. It's a true story about the power of perception, about how we fail to recognise talent and beauty in unexpected places. It also raises an important and arresting question: If we don't have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing?
In Judaism it's called Koach Hahergel, the force of routinisation, the dulling of our senses, and much of our tradition seeks to break the hard skin of habit. That's why we have this Yom Kippur day, why we celebrate a Shabbat, a festival. That's why we stop for a wedding, pause for a brit, say a bracha before we eat, say shehecheyanu for something new: a new suit, a new car, a new festive day. A mitzvah calls on us to act differently, to be different, to exile ourselves from our bad habits.

Shehecheyanu is the blessing that wakes us up.It also tries to reawaken in us that radical amazement at the beauty and wonder of being alive today: ShehecheyanuVeKiyimanuVeHigiyanulazmanhazeh. Young children have it naturally; they live in the intense pleasure of now; this time, this experience, this moment.But adults are often trapped by their past experiences; their expectations shape their perceptions; their senses become jaded.
We need to be shaken up and that's also why we stop for Yizkor now; we need to take time to remember especially the things we missed or have forgotten about those who came before us. The departed are always with us, in our dreams and in our waking hours but we may not appreciate just what they left behind for us.There are so many things we just don't see or as Helen Keller expressed it: "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision";the psalmist put it just as dramatically: "They have ears but do not hear,eyes but they do not see." Sometimes we hear without appreciating or really understanding what is being said.Perhaps it's because we aren't really ready to hear the message; the kabbalah suggests that only when the eye is ready the vision will appear, when the ear is ready the song will present itself.

The Talmud tells a story of such a moment about Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi and a chance meeting he has with the mythical Elijah. He seizes the opportunity to ask him a question that has long-bothered him: "Tell me," he says ''Eimat atayMashiach, When will the Messiah come?" Elijah says, "Why don't you go and ask him yourself? He is sitting at the entrance gate to Rome... among the poor and sick lepers, bandaging and dressing his wounds. "So he went to meet him -"Shalom eliyichravivemori"he says "Shalom my master, my teacher, please tell me when will you come and show yourself to the world?'' Mashiach gives him a one-word answer, "Hayom- Today." Rabbi Levi is perplexed and disappointed at the answer and when he gets to meet Elijah again he tells him that the Mashiach lied, "he said he would come this very day and he didn't''. Elijah looks long and hard at Levi and quietly says to him: "This is what he was saying to you- Hayomimbekolotishmau.Today-if you will hear his voice."

In other words, you failed to actually hear, to listen to the sound of his heartbreaking violin, to recognize that the Mashiach is actually waiting for you. You were, to quote Shimon and Garfunkel, hearing without listening. When his voice becomes your voice, when his cause becomes your cause, when you burn with goodness, when social justice is a passion not a platitude, when you transform apathy into empathy, entropy into energy, then you change the world, bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, step-by-step. And when is the opportunity to really hear? -it's "Hayom," it's now, it's today.

And why didn't the intelligent and personable Rabbi Levi know this in the first instance? Because the very last place he was expecting to find truth and beauty was in the slums of Rome or India, the asylum centres of PNG, the squatter camps outside Cape Town, the quarters of the homeless at the Salvos in Melbourne. And perhaps he thought the Messiah would be wearing Prada or at least a Zegna suit, not licking his wounds and tending to his sores...
Ours is a world with so much suffering, so many hurting. Be they the Jewish families who go to the Melbourne Jewish Charity fund for school shoes, the traumatised kids in Sderot, the human tide of refugees washing through Jordan and Italy or casting themselves onto our coastlines. It's a flawed, flawed world we live in.We can't fix it all, but as RavNachman of Bratslav would say, if it's broken it can be fixed. At the very heart of Jewish thought and theology is the idea that out of the very flaws there comes the possibility of repair. Leonard Ha-Cohen sings it best:"There's a crack in everything that's what lets the light come in..."The Mashiach, according to Kabbalah, stems from the most compromised human beings, the blighted daughters of Lot,the hapless Tamar posing as a prostitute, the outsider Ruth forced to behave with indignity just like Esther who is coerced into sleeping with a hopeless King to save her people...

So if you're feeling you're too far gone to be a better person, or too down to pick yourself up, remember Joseph in his dark pit, and if you're feeling alienated and disconnected from your God,yourself, your community, from the Jewish people, from Israel, remember Jonah inside the deep darkness of the whale. It's only in his desperation that he realizes who he is- IvriAnochi, I am a Jew, a son of Abraham, a member of an incredible people... Only in his despair he discovers he has the capacity to reach out to others, even if they aren't Jewish and aren't especially worthy-namely the non-Jewish city of Nineveh. Hardships, it's been suggested often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. And so Jonah becomes a world-healer, a master of Tikkun Olam.

The imperfect Jonah learned how to play a whale in the cool depths and on that cold Washington morning Joshua Bell learned how to play a violin to a deaf audience. It was a violin that could tell a whale of a story itself. For the violin Josh was playing was a multi-million dollar Stradivarius made in 1713 and which had been stolen in 1936 from Bronislaw Huberman, the Polish Jewish virtuoso. It had been missing for 51 years. Josh bought this stately old violin which had seen so much from the insurers ...

(Huberman's story itself is one of audacious courage, of seeing a moment and seizing an opportunity. Huberman foresaw the Nazi rise to power would spell the end of a rich Jewish musical fraternity. So he used his reputation and prestige (as a world violinist), enlisting Einstein and Toscanini's help to create a new ensemble in Palestine known as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (later Israel Philharmonic). In this way he saved the lives of hundreds of musicians and their families- nearly 1000 people in all. Huberman didn't wait for the Messiah; Huberman heard the foreboding music in the subways of Berlin. Huberman gave up the promise of wealth and comfort to save the world of musicians.)

Huberman becamea Messianic force himself.As the Chassidic Rebbe taught -If you always assume the person sitting next to you is the Messiah waiting for some human act of thoughtfulness or kindness, you will soon learn to weigh your words and watch your hands...And I would add you will learn to be alert and watch out for opportunities. To recognise that mazel or destiny is what you make happen and not what happens to you,that luck is what occurs when preparation meets opportunity. Thomas Edison put it more plainly:Opportunity,he said, is missed by most people because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work. Messianic dreamers are dangerous, Visionary opportunists are hard -working realists.

At this Yizkor time I thank God for granting me those possibilities I did recognise, for giving me the father, Isaac, that I remember every day when I put on tefillin and adjust my shelrosh, using the very mirror he would use daily to adjust his tefillin. I am grateful for the mirror Dad gave me into my own self...

And I am thankful that I took the chance to learn Torah from my Rosh Yeshiva,RavGoldfein, of revered memory,and I am appreciative of my departed friends the friendships I was able to pick up like seeds and grow into strong binding sheaves. Their fragrance continues to grace my life long after their departure, and I thank you Hashem for the individuals of this congregation I learn and grow from even in their absence. I know each of you here carries your own precious cargo of love and loss, of moments seized and memories savoured

Let me leave you with one final story related by Rabbi Norman Lamm to sum up what I have been saying ... A rabbi was returning from the funeral of a man he had known well.Sitting in the car next to the man's son, a young successful businessman,he noticed the son was especially distressed and asked:"Is there something in particular that's bothering you?''After a few moments hesitation the young man replied, "Yes Rabbi.There is something for which I will never forgive myself. Twenty minutes before Dad died he tried to phone me. He wanted to speak to me,to have his last words with me, his only son. And he tried repeatedly,but the phone was busy..."

Your community is calling on you today -are you going to be otherwise engaged?Your family or your friends may be trying to reach you today -will you be alert enough to hear their call? God is calling us today,desperate to reach us as Yom Kippur ebbs away. Will you be too busy,caught up in the deprivations of the day or the distractions of your life? Or will you be all eyes,all ears ready to respond with your whole heart and being just as Moses did at the burning bush, Abraham at Moriah,Huberman in Berlin, with a resounding Hineni,here I am ready, receptive and on a roll....