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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Kol Nidre - 2007/5768

Lost Without A Frame

For years I have known of Gene Weingarten as a humor writer whose greatest discovery was Dave Barry. This past spring I discovered what a superb journalist he is through a fascinating and elegantly written article/study in The Washington Post’s Sunday Magazine. If you have not seen the article yet, you should. And, by the time I am done this evening, you may well want to. I am also sure that countless of my colleagues—rabbis, ministers, priests and preachers—have and will yet use the article as the basis for many sermons—and I thank two of my teachers, Rabbi Jack Reimer and Ed Feinstein, for the idea.

Weingarten incorporated the premise of his article/study in its title: “Pearls before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” In other words, Weingarten wanted to perform an experiment and write about it. Take one of the greatest violinists in the world today, say, oh, Joshua Bell, (who, if you do not know, grew up in Bloomington, Indiana; is an incredibly good-looking yet boyish 39; is internationally acclaimed; and is perhaps even the last of the Jewish virtuosos) and dress him up. But do not dress him up in his usual concert garb. Dress him up in jeans, a t-shirt, and a Washington Nationals cap and place him at a station in the Washington Metro with—not just any violin, but his violin—oh, say, the 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Strad worth some $3.5 million—and have him play. And have him play, oh, some of the greatest masterpieces for violin by some of the world’s greatest composers—oh, say, Bach and Schubert and Ponce and Massenet—and see what happens.

Thus it was around 8 one Friday morning that Joshua Bell set himself up in an indoor arcade at Metro’s L’Enfant Plaza station. He took out his, uh, “fiddle,” left its case open, seeded it with a few dollars and some change, and began to play. He was to play for 45 minutes and Weingarten, himself not an expert in classical music, writes of how deeply moved he was by the magnificent sound emanating from Bell’s violin as Bell and his instrument became one. So what do you think—at least those of you what have not yet read the article? How many people stopped to hear this free concert, if you will, by a man who, just three days earlier, had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall? And how much money was placed into the violin case when tickets to that Boston concert had gone for around $100 a seat?

As part of the experiment, Weingarten asked these questions hypothetically of Leonard Slatkin, director of our National Symphony Orchestra, without mentioning Bell’s name. Slatkin thought and suggested that, maybe out of 1000 people, some 75-100 would stop to listen with perhaps 35-40 recognizing the quality of the music. And, from this crowd, Slatkin was convinced that the musician would make at least $150. This, of course, from an expert.

Weingarten and his Washington Post crew sincerely wanted to get an accurate read of the experiment. They set up video and audio to record the entire episode. And four reporters joined him to get people’s phone numbers for a follow-up on what they were told was a study on commuting. 1097 people passed through—some stopping to buy magazines and papers at a stand, many others standing in line to buy lottery tickets. Others entered a neighboring restaurant and a very few sat in some “balcony seats” to get a shoe shine. So how big a crowd gathered to listen to the wonderful noise emanating from this man and his violin? Some 200, maybe Slatkin’s 75-100? NO–a crowd never gathered! How many people stopped and listened—just 7! 7! And did this street musician make that $150 dollars? NO—just $32 and some change from 27 people.

One man, working in the restaurant, said, “He’s pretty good.” I can imagine him adding, “Maybe he’s got a future.” Another, near the end of the experiment who had seen Bell play in concert at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier, exclaimed, “That’s Joshua Bell!” An hour of exquisite beauty in the middle of 1097 people’s morning trips to work and 1090 of them just walked on by. Said the one person, the only person, who recognized Bell, “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?” In just a couple of days, concluded Weingarten, this Flop of L’Enfant Plaza would be accepting the Avery Fisher prize recognizing him as the best classical musician in America.

Weingarten was deeply moved by the incredible response he received to the experiment and the story. Over 1000 comments came in from around the world—more comments than he had received for any piece he had ever written. Several of those who responded tried to make sense of people’s reactions—or lack of reaction—to Bell and his music. Some saw it as another sign in the ongoing decline and demise of classical music—seen also in dwindling attendance and ticket sales for symphonies and orchestras across the country along with diminishing sales of classical albums. Yet Weingarten ruled this out. He noted how moved he was—and that he knew nothing about classical music until he met Bell. Yet the story itself included a follow-up with the first person to stop and listen to Bell in the arcade. It took six minutes before that person stopped—and that someone listened for three minutes before moving on. He knew nothing about classical music; classic rock was as close as he got. Still, as he later related to Weingarten, “Whatever it was, it made me feel at peace,” and, for the first time in his life, he gave money to a street musician. In his responses, Weingarten also discovered that someone had tried a similar experiment almost 20 years earlier in Copenhagen. A famed musician joined another street musician to perform. That famed musician—Bruce Springsteen. The music—Springsteen’s “The River.” The results—the same—few people noticed, few listened.

Several other respondents suggested that white-European cultural chauvinism was involved. Music by dead white males played by another white male (albeit still alive) simply could not attract today’s very different demographic. Weingarten directly ended this nonsense by noting the amazing demographic mix of the seven people who stopped—three blacks, two whites, an Asian, and a Latina.

Another blogger offered a different perspective. She suggested that it was all in how one busks. She wrote:

A busker is someone  who can turn any place into a stage.

Obviously, Joshua Bell needs an actual stage. As a busker, one needs to interact with those around, break walls of personal space, and lure people into a collective and spontaneous group experience on the street, in the moment, with you. A bad busking act is when the performer doesn’t make an effort to connect with the audience. Like musicians who play for themselves, not acknowledging the audience, just burying their heads in their instruments.

I cannot imagine that Springsteen does not know how to busk. And Weingarten reviewed the entire video and recognized that parts of some of the pieces would not grab him. Yet at some point within any 90 second passage of time—the amount of time to ride the escalator and cross the arcade—something accessibly good, something with a profound hook, would have and should have drawn people in.

Weingarten offered perhaps the best explanation of all in the story itself through a conversation he had with a senior curator at the National Gallery. Imagine, suggested the curator, that I took “one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, …and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.” In other words, framing matters.

Just as the Kelly became part of the background ambience, so did Bell’s magnificent music become part of the background noise. Something wondrous and exquisite had just happened. But where was the wonder, the amazement, the awe? It was gone or, at best, taken for granted. And the words from our old prayerbook, from Gates of Repentance, come back to haunt: “days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless (and, I could add, soundless) among miracles.”

I surely was walking sightless in my preparations for this sermon over the summer. On this centennial year of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s birth, I went back to read Heschel. I remembered the Heschel who, in his words, “prayed with his feet,” the Heschel who marched with Dr. King in Selma and who vocally opposed the war in Vietnam. What, I wondered, would Heschel have to say today? On the matters I had hoped to talk about, I can only guess as I walked sightless until I reread God in Search of Man. There I rediscovered the man who talked of “radical amazement,” the man who wrote:

Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.

In other words, the opposite of religion is not atheism, is not secularism, is not doubt, is not even disbelief; it is to take things for granted, to not notice the miracles in our midst. And the greatest wonder of all? The fact that there are facts at all. To slightly misquote Heschel, something wonderful just happened—the sun set. The holy can come bursting through the everyday at anytime. How do we respond? At the very best, if we are particularly sensitive, like the seven who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell, we say “It’s the sunset! Wow!” As the Kelly out of its frame was lost, as Joshua Bell’s music out of its frame was hidden, so, too, are those moments of wonder. And, for us as Jews, that frame is the building block of prayer; it is blessing. To quote our scholar-in-residence of several years back, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, “it makes the difference because it sends us forth to lead lives that we might easily take for granted. It tells us that the world is good, that we should see its sanctity, and that we have a role to play in making it better.”

So another story dating back 54 years. A young rabbi, a naval chaplain, was on his way to officiate at a funeral. Here is the story in his own words:

…my automobile was hit by a semi-drifter who had borrowed an uninsured car without brakes. Two days later I was in my naval base hospital with a ruptured kidney. Waiting for it to heal, it occurred to me the rabbis were right to have a blessing for excretion, so I taught myself the text. Ever since, when my kidneys work or I defecate, I have said it. It does not always mean much to me— but it, more than any of the other blessings I daily say, continually reminds me of what God regularly gives me.

If we take nothing else for granted, we surely take going to the bathroom for granted. Yet marvel at the wonder of our urinary tract and our intestinal system engaged in doing God’s work. Now, such may not be what you expected to hear on Yom Kippur. Yet the lesson that rabbi learned—Rabbi Eugene Borowitz who today is the leading theologian of liberal Judaism—is found in the blessing we will read tomorrow morning back on page 87. Go ahead and look at it while I read a more literal translation of the Hebrew:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who formed us wisely, creating in us openings and cavities. You well know that if even one of them be incorrectly opened or closed, existence before You would be impossible. Praised are You, Eternal, who heals all flesh and who works wondrously.

For 54 years, Rabbi Borowitz has been reminded daily of the wonders that God gives him when his body works. He admits that he has trouble taking “who heals all flesh” at face value but has never had difficulty always being moved by “who works wondrously.” And most of us do not even say “Wow!”

In the Talmud, we read that, “In Psalm 24:1, it is written, ‘The earth and its fullness belong to God.’ But Psalm 115:16 says, ‘God has given it to human beings.’ There is no contradiction. The first verse reflects the situation before we say a blessing; the second verse describes the case after the blessing has been said.” The blessings are numerous, as numerous as the wonders of the world—yes, upon going to the bathroom, upon seeing a rainbow, upon high mountains, upon hearing good news, upon seeing royalty or a scholar or a beautiful woman. To take such wonders for granted is a sin; we are stealing from God. But if we say a blessing over that wonder, reflecting our amazement and delight in God’s world, God places it into our care.

Again, to slightly misquote Heschel, something wonderful is going to happen tomorrow morning. We are going to wake up. You might respond tomorrow morning like I do many mornings—kvetch, complain, hit the snooze button countless times. But our mahzors (as our prayerbooks during the rest of the year) provide us with the blessings to ensure that we will celebrate and recognize with wonder what we might otherwise take for granted. Take a look back on page 85; these morning blessings—which we will recite tomorrow–are translated as the miracles of daily life. Bodily acts become linked with transcendent purpose.

The blessing formula you know either in its one line variation or as the closing sentence of a longer benediction. It begins “Baruch ata…Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe…” And perhaps the one you know best is the one we say before we eat with bread as the symbolic food for all foods. Hamotzi lehem min ha-aretz—the one who brings forth bread from the earth. The blessing surely reminds us of the wonder of food itself and of all God provides—the sun and the soil and the seed and the showers. Yet more—for in simple terms, the blessing does not make sense. The actual bread we hold as we say the blessing was not brought forth by God; for all God offered, we humans labored mightily to bring it forth. Some of the ancient rabbis believe the blessing refers back to the bread of the Garden of Eden—when it grew on trees. Others saw it as the bread of a Messianic future. Larry Hoffman then says it best:

[The] blessing is much more than a vote of thanks for our daily food. It constitutes also a statement of faith in a time to come when all will have enough to eat, free of the backbreaking work that is now required by most of the world’s population just to put food on the table.

The blessing over bread converts the ordinary act of eating into a sacred act of hope by evoking the promise for a better time to come.

Ten words that frame the act of eating; ten words which transform that which we take for granted and, in wonder, in radical amazement, turn a commonplace animal act into one with the messianic hope and opportunity to end hunger.

In his story, Gene Weingarten asks, “If a great musician plays great music but no one hears…was he really any good?” And Heschel writes, “There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living.” For the sin of indifference to the sublime wonder of life, for the sin of taking things for granted, for the sin of not hearing, of not seeing, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

I could end there. But my gift to you in this new year will be sent out shortly in the mail. It will be a “Daily Blessings Card” published by the Union for Reform Judaism. Wallet sized, you can keep it in your pocket or purse. Filled with blessings for various foods, for life moments, for the wonders of nature, for a journey, for learning, for social action, your gift to yourself will be to keep it ever at the ready. May the wonder of the music of everyday life grab you and hold you. May it remind you that the world is good, that you can see its sanctity, and that you can make it better. Blessing is the framework and, when you pull out that card and say the appropriate blessing, you can be transformed.


Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784