I witnessed “the perfect” this summer while I was in Aspen, Colorado. Permit me to share it with you.
Every summer we send our son, Jacob, to an extreme sports camp for children with special needs. It is a remarkable, astonishing place. During their time there, campers engage in whitewater river rafting, water skiing, rock climbing, ropes courses, and countless other terrifying acts of daring-do. Jacob loves it because he says it’s the time of year when he doesn’t feel that he has special needs, and he feels that he can accomplish anything. The camp is amazing. And because my wife and I are extraordinarily devoted parents who will make any sacrifice for our children, we rent a condo in Aspen, which means that after dropping Jacob off at camp, we have to stay in town for vacation. We take naps, read trashy novels, hike the mountains, sleep late, and eat at a nearby veggie restaurant. Gracious husband that I am, I even allow Elana to schlepp me for one visit per vacation to the John Denver shrine.
But one of the opportunities that I love most about Aspen, in addition to its extraordinary natural beauty, is the Aspen Music Festival, the country’s largest classical music event. Every summer, some 750 students and musicians from all over North America and the world gather in Aspen, and they play all summer long. The music is public: they play in parks, churches, concert halls; they perform in quartets, as formal symphonies, as individual artists. All of these performances open to the public. For one week of paradise, we listen to a single selection of classical music every day we are there. It’s really a wonderful treat. When God closed the Garden of Eden, God opened Aspen.
Last year Elana and I attended a “master class.” Taught by a musician at the pinnacle of her or his career, the class provides an opportunity for extraordinarily proficient students to do their stuff in the presence of a master teacher and then to be critiqued on the spot in front of an audience. A friend who is a professor of music at UC Irvine recommended that we go hear Robert McDuffie, an internationally renowned violinist and music professor at Merced University in Macon, Georgia. The first student performed a piece that was technically perfect. I turned to Elana and said, “The professor is going to have nothing to say because it was flawless.” I was astonished when he approached the student and said: “You played that piece perfectly.” But then he went on to have a lot more to say. What he talked about was the place of feeling in music.
Playing every note in a mechanically perfect manner does not make for truly great music. In order to create great music, the student must learn to insert real feelings inside the piece and then be willing to accentuate certain notes, to hold some notes imperceptibly longer, to make others just a little more staccato or a little more subdued. Remarkably, when the student played the piece the second time, the music leapt alive. The contrast between technically perfect the first time and perfect and filled with feeling the second time was a difference between a machine playing the piece and humanity’s heart opening up. Listening to that student and teacher made me realize that we all need a Master Class. We need a Master Class in Torah. We need a Master Class in life. We, each of us, need to have people who are experts at living listen to us live, not because they are perfect, not because they know all the answers, but because they are capable of insisting that we put our feelings into our living. We need Master Teachers who know when to accentuate, when to refrain, when to accelerate, and what needs special emphasis. By pouring their passion into life, and by instructing us to do the same, they teach us how to live more fully, more wisely, more completely.
As we sit in our Sukkot, at the end of the season marking a new beginning, a new year, I want us to think about our life as a Master Class with a world filled with excellent teachers and Torah as a beckoning guide for the perplexed. Before we begin, I must caution you not to fall into the error of a false dichotomy between learning and feeling, as if thinking and emoting were separable and distinct from each other. This is false. The only way you can benefit from a Master Class is if you are already technically excellent. That means that the recommendation that is about to follow is not to be used instead of discipline and rigor, improving our Hebrew, committing to serious study of Jewish texts, wrestling with Jewish philosophy, literature, and history, spending time in Israel, engaging in the work of social justice wherever we live, or growing in mitzvot, the sacred commandments which constitute our connection with the Divine. You do not get to start in a Master’s Class until you are already proficient in the technical areas. So I need to encourage you to redouble your efforts at sitting and learning. There is a reason why a place of learning is called a “yeshivah,” because no learning can happen if you don’t plant yourself in a chair and spend lots of time in that place. But sitting is not enough. It is not enough to know all the rules. It is not enough to have mastered all the binyanim (the structure of Hebrew verb formation). That technical skill is simply the portal that makes it possible to then become an artist of Torah. And what that artistry requires are four main guides:
The first is that learning is beyond mastery; it is about encounter, about engagement. I have been spending time with Reb Yisroel Hofstein, the Maggid of Koznitz, a great Hasidic master of eighteenth-century Poland. It is told of the Maggid that when he first entered the court of his teacher, he had already studied 800 kabbalistic books. He said that the first time that he looked into the face of the Maggid of Mezritch, he realized that his learning was just now beginning. I wonder what it is like to look at a face with such sufficient presence that you realize that you are standing on the shore of a new ocean of possibility and wisdom. What does it mean to open yourself to a teacher, a human being, so that you are able to say that despite whatever technical learning you might have already mastered, the beginning is now? I bless all of us that we can bring our own integration and our own feelings to our learning and living, so that every session of learning is a new start, that every moment with our havruta, every moment engaged with each other, is the opening of an unexplored continent and an opportunity to begin anew.
In addition to that integration of passion, that ability to connect to another person, comes, authenticity, the ability to be really, honestly true and transparent. Another story of the Maggid of Koznitz: It is told that a woman came to him in tears. She had been married for twelve years, yet she and her husband had been unable to conceive. The Maggid said to her, “What can you bring to this?” She said, “I don’t know what you’re asking.” And he said, “Well, let me tell you a story. My mother was in a similar position to you many years ago, and she went to the Baal Shem Tov, and she said to him, ‘Rebbe, my husband and I have been unable to conceive,’ and he said to her, ‘What do you have to bring?’ And my mother was terribly poor and she thought and she said, ‘Rebbe, the only thing I have of value is my cloak, but you may have it.’ The Baal Shem Tov took the cloak, hung it on the wall of the Beit Midrash as a symbol of her pure faith, and he said to her, ‘That gift will do.’” And the Magid said, “The result of that gift of my mother is me.” The petitioner heard the tale, and she said, “All right, I too will bring you a cloak,” and he said, “No, you can’t do that. You have already heard the story. My mother had not heard the story. She created the story.” That is a tale about authenticity, about not mimicking your rebbe; in fact, it is a tale of the impossibility of becoming your rebbe. We are each of us here to become something without precedent, to become someone new and unique. But we do so when the right rebbe turns to us and makes the right demands, and in our authenticity, as we are, we rise to become visible. So I invite all of us again, this year, to find rebbes who can see us and summon us, and for us to have the courage and the truth to be able to provide a gift that is new, that is truly our own.
With relationship comes responsibility. It is impossible to connect to other people unless you are prepared to shoulder some of what is theirs. The story is told that the Maggid was praying with such intensity that he had a vision of Adam Ha-Rishon, the first Human. Adam Ha-Rishon waited until the Maggid had finished the Shemonah Esreh (the Silent Benediction), and then Adam said to the Rabbi, “You have prayed with such devotion, such kavvanah, that you have atoned for your share in my sin. Now go back and pray for my share in my sin.” The Magid tells us that story, I think, because if we are only praying for ourselves, we have not really begun to pray. It is when in seeing other people you see opportunities to help, opportunities to carry, opportunities that make their humanity greater and more present that real prayer can transpire. Now this is a challenge for all of us, because we live in a world that gives people labels. And we are trained by institutions to respond to people’s labels, not to people’s humanity. But what the Magid is telling us here is that those labels are shorthand. They are always inaccurate approximations of the real human being in whose presence you stand. And if you cannot see that person, if you see only that label, then there is no encounter happening whatsoever. So long as you stand in prayer only thinking of your own shortcomings, your own needs, and not what it is that you can be doing for others around you or the world, then the task has not yet begun.
Last option I want to put out there: We live as artists of Torah in a place that contemporary culture has no room for. In the self-identified Torah-world, Torah living is no longer an art; it’s a sublimation. And the dominant tenor of Torah communities, right now, is islam (submission) in which you are recognized as a ben or a bat Torah by virtue of your submission to Torah. For many who love Torah, the path is of submission and not of creativity. And then there are people in the world who see light as creativity and art, and therefore have no room for –Torah. Any fidelity strikes them as betrayal. In this dichotomy, the left and the right agree and conspire against a synthesis of creativity and fidelity, of playfulness that can be serious. And we stand in that lonely middle spot that says in fact that the life of Torah is a life of artful creativity using Torah in the broadest sense as our palette, using it to create a tableau of such splendor and majesty that people’s lives are enhanced.
Here’s my one non-Hassidic story: One of the scholars at the rabbinical school I attended was known to say that anything after the 1600s is merely biography. So here comes some real Judaism! This is from Massekhet Haggigah in the Talmud. It is told that the heretic rabbi, Elisha ben Abuya, was never abandoned by his talmid, Rebbe Meir. Rebbe Meir saw the richness in his master’s soul and refused to abandon him. And he pestered him: “Rebbe, come with me to the Beit Midrash. Let me show you the children learning. You will hear the children of Jerusalem learning. It will be so inspiring to you; it will bring you back. The rabbis, God knows, cannot bring you back; the adults will not bring you back. But you will hear the children. You will hear the Torah on their voices. You ’ll come back.” Finally, Elisha ben Abuya relented, and he went into the first schoolhouse. The children were learning a verse about killing their enemies. And so it was in the second, in the third, in the fourth, in every school he went to. He heard the children learning a Torah of hatred. The verses were actually Biblical verses. The students were not making them up. Their teachers were not inventing these verses. They are found in the Torah. But Elisha left the last school house, and he turned to his student and said: “If I had a knife I would have killed him.” It is unclear from the grammar who the “him” is he would have killed. But it is clear who died from all of those versus of hate: the soul seeking a pathway back to God through Torah. Being an artist of Torah means that we are responsible for those parts of Torah we choose to teach, the ones that come alive on our breath, and how we interpret those verses. It is no excuse to teach something despicable, and then justify it by saying, “It is in the Masorah.” You are not called upon to be a human tape recorder. You are called upon to be God’s shaliach (messenger). If the Torah you teach is not a teaching of justice, compassion, and of love, it would be better for you, and for the Torah, to remain silent. We are responsible for the masorah we teach.
In short, the question to ask ourselves is “How are we living our lives?” We are told in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), that the people of the world are to look at us and see by the way we live that ours is a loving God, that our laws are ways of wisdom. Is that wisdom and love visible in your life? If someone were to follow after you for 24 hours, would they see sufficient value-added wisdom, profundity, calm, joy, and compassion to know that you were remade by a God of love and justice?
Back to the Maggid:
The Maggid had a wonderful interpretation of the first Psalm. He noticed that at first mention the Torah was referred to as Torat Ha-Shem (“the Torah of God”). And later in the same Psalm, it is referred to as Torato (“the Torah of each seeking soul”). What makes it go from being God’s Torah to our Torah, the Maggid taught, was when you learn the Torah for its own sake, when your soul mingles with the Holy Torah, then what comes out of you is also Torah. If you allow yourself to be remade by what you learn so that there is no longer a firm line where Torah stops and you begin, but you are so thoroughly infused by the wisdom and the love and the joy of Torah, that at every moment you are infused with it, then it is truly, Torato: your Torah.
Life is a Master Class, and school is in session.
I bless you that this year you will find teachers who will not only give you the technical mastery necessary to enter the process, but also the capacity to feel deeper, stronger, more raw, less filtered.
I bless you that you will find teachers who will see you as you truly are, and who will stand by you and give you what you need so that you can become that person.
I invite you to look for these teachers, not only among your teachers, but among your community. You are also each other’s life teacher as you are ours.
I invite you to look not only to your teachers and your colleagues, not only to Torah in its broadest sense, but to God’s creation. Look to the trees and listen to them. Look to God’s other living things and listen to them. Live your life in their presence, aware of their reality, their life, and their divinity, and you will emerge—different, changed, better.
And then, aharon, aharon haviv, look not only to your teachers, to your colleagues, to the Torah and the masorah, to God ’s creation, but also to the Ribbono Shel Olam. Remember that you are loved with an infinite love. A love so strong that it is built up for 14 billion years before, emerging as you. Know that that love is not something you earn, but it is something you learn to embody. And I bless us all, that feeling the love, we have the courage to share it and to bring it into the world in a way that only each of us can.
I bless you with a wonderful year. I look forward to savoring the symphony of your Master Class.