Joshua Bell is one of the world's most accomplished violinists. He has played with the world's most renowned orchestras and now is a conductor as well. He performs in the world's finest concert halls and often commands hundreds of dollars per ticket. About five years ago, he participated in an experiment organized by the Washington Post.
On Friday, Jan. 12, at about 8 a.m., the middle of the morning rush hour, Bell was in the entrance of the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, one of the capital's busiest. He was wearing blue jeans and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He opened up his violin case, took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius, placed the open case on the ground at his feet. He strategically threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money. He then started playing. The experiment sought to determine if people would stop and notice. Would the beauty of Bell's music transcend the time and space of a busy subway station at rush hour? Over the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Only a handful stopped to listen for any serious length of time, though those who did knew it was something special. Bell took home $32.17, plus another $20 from the one pedestrian who actually did recognize him. In other words, the experiment found that most people did not stop to notice something truly grand.
On Shemini Atzeret (Monday, Oct. 8), Jewish tradition bids us to pause. As long as the fall holiday season has been, let's let it linger a little bit longer, our tradition tells us. Let's not hurry back into the "rush hour" of our daily lives just yet.
The rabbis in the Midrash understood the Torah's word atzeret to convey stopping or delaying. "'I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,' [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet's conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, 'My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'"
For me this Midrash suggests that the relative calm and simplicity of Shemini Atzeret is a necessary complement -- perhaps, even, a corrective -- to the solemnity and celebration of the surrounding holidays. Just as great beauty can be found in a subway station, so too God can be found at humble moments as well. On the High Holidays, the synagogue is like a grand concert hall in which the sound of the shofar pierces our hearts. On Sukkot we have the pageantry of the lulav and etrog and the multi-sensory ritual of dwelling in a Sukkah. Shemini Atzeret lacks the grandeur and ritual of the preceding holidays. The message is that God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These can serve only as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Shemini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God's and that the opportunity for that encounter exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or lulav and etrog.
The interpretation of Shemini Atzeret as an expression of God reaching out to us reminds us that just as God reaches out to us, we must reach out to one another. We must notice one another's humanity, experience one another's songs, even in a subway station. The question is: how does one cultivate such sensitivity? Dr. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University in Los Angeles provides some guidance rooted in Jewish tradition in his book "God's To-Do List: 101 to Be an Angel and Do God's Work on Earth."
Wolfson notes that the Protestant minister Rick Warren has touched many lives in our country with his book "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" Warren provides a Christian answer to that question. Ron Wolfson takes the question and offers a Jewish answer: We are on God's earth, he writes, to be God's partner, to do the tasks that God has for us to do. All the things -- big and small -- that God expects us to do will further the work of creation and repair the brokenness in the world. And when we do these "To-Dos," we discover the source of meaning and purpose in our lives.
Wolfson lists the following 10 categories of To-Dos through which we can perform God's work on earth. They are to create, to bless, to rest, to care, to call, to comfort, to repair, to wrestle, to give and to forgive. Wolfson discusses each category and suggests ten ways to fulfill each action. Our cultivation of these To-Dos as part of our daily regimen will enable us to appreciate the symphonies that occur all around us in our daily lives, whether or not we bump into a maestro on the way to work.
On Shemini Atzeret, I believe three of these To-Dos stand out: to create, to bless and to rest.
The act of creation begins with intention -- often expressed in words, creating something, looking at it, judging it, naming it, and -- ultimately -- documenting and remembering it.
On Simchat Torah, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara -- God creates. With Wolfson's understanding, just as God creates, so too human beings should create -- that is, work as partners with God to create a better world. When the Ten Commandments describe the Sabbath, the text says sheshet yamim taavod, "six days a week you shall create," and only on the seventh day we shall rest. Creating is a mitzvah insofar as it allows us to apply our spark of divinity toward creating a better world.
Building relationships is not just about calling. It is also an act of creation. When we share Sabbath or festival meals with other individuals or families within our community, we create bonds that last a lifetime. Creating community is one form of creation that is permitted on Shabbat. Shabbat is not meant to be spent in isolation. It is meant for us to be at one with our family, friends and God. We must carve out time for ourselves to hear one another's symphonies and not rush past them like in the D.C. Metro station.
In the Genesis story that we will read on Simchat Torah, God not only creates. God also blesses. God blesses all creatures with fertility. God blesses humanity with fertility and mastery of all living creatures. God blesses the Sabbath. Later in the Bible, God blesses Abraham as he begins his journey God blesses Sarah with a child. God blesses Isaac after his father dies. Just as God is mevarekh (blesses), so too we must be mevarekh. Wolfson suggests many ways in which we can be mevarekh aside from saying God bless you after someone sneezes. There is a tradition of saying 100 blessings a day, thanking God for the many blessings in our lives. We ask God's blessings for the food we eat, for safe journeys and for healing. We can think about how many blessings we say per day. In the process, we can also bless our children, spouse or other loved ones. If we experience great service in a store, business or perhaps even our synagogue, we can make a phone call or write a thank-you note to express our gratitude and extend blessing in the process. And, yes, do take notice of those classical musicians in the street. Blessing others also requires us to think of ourselves as blessings. If we lack this level of self-esteem, it is more difficult for us to bless others.
Finally, I would like to mention rest as a key element of God's To-Do List. In the Creation narrative, Shabbat is understood as to cease or to stop. God stopped creating on the seventh day. Rest is a by-product of stopping the work of creating.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his essay "The Sabbath" (p. 28),
Again, God's To-Do List is about enhancing the quality of time we spend with other human beings to create a better world and to refresh our world so that it may become even better. We cannot constantly be on the run like those who rushed past Joshua Bell.
"To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men -- is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for human progress than the Sabbath?"
To create, to bless and to rest are three of the ways in which we fulfill God's work on earth. This work calls upon us to imitate God in order to bring God's presence into our lives and the lives of others. On Shemini Atzeret, we think about God seeking to linger in our presence because God needs us as much as we need God. We are like a pair of loved ones who seek to be as close to each other now and for as long and as often as is possible. Perhaps it is the image of this intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the times that they blessed us and gave us renewed confidence and hope. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other's company. Let us pledge to bring God's To-Do list into our lives and not miss the symphony of life around us every day.
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