The King’s Orchestra by Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, retold by R. Sharon Brous and retold by R. Meredith Cahn
Once upon a time, long ago, there lived a beloved queen whose court musicians played beautiful music for her. She loved the music and the musicians felt honored to be able to use their talent to bring her joy. Every day for many years, the musicians played enthusiastically, and the queen and her musicians developed a deep love for each other.
But eventually, after years of dedicated service, all the musicians died. Their children were called into the royal court to take their parents’ place. Out of loyalty to their parents, they appeared every morning to perform. But unlike their parents, the children did not love the music. While they could play basic tunes, they did not understand the hidden power of their instruments, and in their hearts they believed that they had better things to do than spend time trying to please some ruler. Each day that they played, their resentment grew. And each day the queen became more and more frustrated—as much by their dismissive attitude as by the cacophony their so-called music produced.
After some time, for reasons nobody really understood, a few of the children developed a renewed passion in serving the queen. They realized that playing beautiful music was the way to connect with her and bring her joy—as well as themselves. But because they had abandoned serious practice for so long, their instruments were rusty and out of tune and their skill was embarrassingly poor.
So these children set out to remember and relearn what their parents had known so well. They arrived early each morning and found a remote corner of the palace to practice together. They began to experiment with sound, rediscover harmony and rededicate themselves to service grounded by love. In the evening, after the other musicians went home, they’d practice more, trying whole-heartedly to make their instruments sing.
The queen witnessed their efforts and was deeply moved. Their music was different from their parents’, but like them, it was driven by dedication and love. And for this reason, she received their efforts as a blessing.
First let me remind you, in case you are not familiar with chassidic stories, that the ruler, usually the king, but here changed because I told it, is God. Always. So service to the ruler is what we do in the name of love of God.
I love this story, because it speaks to so many important themes in current Judaism and spirituality and related to this day of reflection.
My Judaism is not the same as my parents’ or grandparents, or my children’s. Judaism keeps changing, with different harmonies, different music, different choices. Sawyer Thompson—and many of the rest of you—have to sing Nurit Hirsch’s Oseh Shalom to suit his sense of conclusion for the Amidah. I’d rather we sing Steve Dropkin’s or Shlomo Carlebach’s or Jeff Klepper’s or Debbie Friedman’s. I’m sure my grandfather would cringe at any of these. We like different harmonies.
And while the music is important – nay, vital – to the service to the queen—at least largely for the musicians’ own connection, another part of this story that really sings to me is that some of the children for some unknown, unexamined reason, found a renewed passion for serving the queen. No demographic studies were launched, no investigations to replicate or pilot projects to initiate. For some reason, serving became important to some group of the next generation. And this was good. It brought joy to the queen and joy to themselves and the palace was alive with the sound of music once more. The music wasn’t the same as their parents, but its dedication and love would make everyone sing.
I think this part of the story sings to me because it’s my story. For some reason, I couldn’t really tell you why, I, who had walked away in my teens (and I can tell you why I did that), came home, and picked up a book, listened to some teachers, and began to study early and late. And there are many more where I came from, so to speak. We don’t know why. We were called, we find ourselves caught up. It makes us happy.
But for some of you, the story might hum a different tune. How many of you show up here—today or any time—out of loyalty to your parents? How many limit your participation in services and in study because the content doesn’t sing to you? Your parents did it, you want to honor them, but this religious stuff doesn’t resonate for you?
Many Jews have turned to Eastern religions or philosophies, to the beauty of the mountains, to being in the zone in physical activity. You may listen to the voice that Elijah heard on the mountain, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, but the still small voice asking him, “What are you doing here?” and you hear it differently from Elijah. It might be asking you, “What is it that you have been called to do on this earth at this time?” Is your purpose to raise healthy children, or be kind to the people around you, or advocate and educate about the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or create music, or…?
My question to you is:
What kind of Judaism WOULD sing to your heart or DOES sing to your heart? How would it have to change? What harmonies might bring your heart closer to the faith of your ancestors? Do you need a partner or a buddy? Do you need personal prodding from your rabbi? I ask you to spend some time thinking about that and let me know. Maybe you want to study prayer, or prepare for an adult bat or bar mitzvah, or work on social justice or love of our neighbors, or care for the vulnerable. Maybe you want to play music at services or lead singing. What would sing to your heart?
Another part of the story that intrigued me was the idea that the children who found a passion to serve still needed to practice, morning and night, that to make their instruments sing, their passion was not enough: they still needed to work at it. You can’t just wake up one morning and decide – now I’m going to engage in my Judaism, and feel and ‘get’ what it’s about and feel spiritually uplifted. Your instrument is rusty, and out of tune… I know mine was.
Rabbi Richard Address, formerly of the Union for Reform Judaism and now producing an important website on Jewish Sacred Aging, tells a story about having had a health crisis that was followed by instructions to take himself to a gym to work out and get himself in shape. At his first meeting with the trainer, who reviewed his health records, the trainer asked him, “How serious are you? How much time can you give this every week? Five days?
No? Four days?
No? How about three days?
At that point, the trainer gave him a steady gaze and suggested, Well, you might want to come back when you are less busy.
You can’t get into good physical shape without investing the time and effort. You can’t become an excellent skier without practice, or swimmer, or golfer, or softball player.
One of our kids, an All Star Little League team member, told me that the Truckee All Star team had NEVER won even the district, and part of that was because the Reno and Carson City kids start playing much earlier in the season than we can. Indeed, when I suggested that our kids in little league wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day – April 15 – I was told that they don’t play that early in the year – snow and all, after all. You can’t get to Carnegie Hall without Practice, Practice, Practice.
But each change starts with a small step: walking into the building was a great one, by the way. A small step can herald profound change.
We are the people not just of the book, but of a rather extensive library, and without growing past the Judaism we learned as children, we Jews who are thinkers in the rest of our lives will most likely reject what we were taught about Judaism as children. It’s not that what we learned as children was wrong, or dishonest, but it was age appropriate.
It’s not that we’re older now and so we’ve put away “foolish things” – it’s that many of us want the time we spend “being Jewish” to either make some intrinsic sense or we want it to lift us to spiritual places we may have gone through spiritual practices we learned elsewhere.
Think about how much effort you put into learning your profession or trade. How much time you spend studying new scientific discoveries or the economics of our time, or even, alas choosing your health insurance plan. It’s not something you could do without serious investment of your intellectual talents and time.
The full impact of Judaism takes the same type of study we invest in learning to ski or play an instrument or even become proficient in a language or – whatever your pet project is. It’s not easy, but it can be worth the challenge.
We Jews are the shomrim, the guardians or keepers, of some of the most incredible intellectual/psychospiritual literature and practices in the world, there waiting for the opportunity to enlighten. And indeed – modern neuroscience and psychology are only now catching up to this ancient wisdom.
A couple of examples of this: meditation, focusing on the breath, is said to slow the mind and give us an opportunity to step away from our immediate emotions that can send us into a flight-fight-freeze burst of adrenaline. Our tradition tells us that human life began with the Creator blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. We know that breath is important. And the word for breath and soul – neshama – is the same – that connection was made at our very beginnings.
Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, author of the book Mindsight that some of us have been studying together, has reinforced my thinking that neurology and psychology are just catching up with Jewish knowledge. Dr. Siegel defines Mindsight as the practices that allow us to step away from our reptilian, survival responses and to watch our brains and minds so that we can gain some control over our responses. He notes what the bible has been telling us for millennia: it’s not easy. Our enslavements – physical enslavement, emotional enslavement, enslavement to substances, anger, food – are virtually impossible to overcome, unless we can step outside our mind for a bit and see what we are doing. In addition to breathing, he has a host of tools – almost ALL of which connect to a Jewish practice.
I’m going to mention two.
One is the practice of doing a body scan combined with breathing. He has his patients lie down and carefully work their breath and their attention down their bodies, to find where they are carrying fear, pain, trauma. And through this careful attention and focus, many of them discover, or uncover, a forgotten or blocked memory or experience, some quite traumatic, others milder, but no less revealing. As we discussed this technique, I called to mind the beginning of the morning service, when we pray the birchat hashachar, the blessings of the morning. These morning prayers do exactly this: to notice where our bodies are working or not working, to focus our attention on each part of what the rabbis called our intricately interwoven systems, and then to spend some time marveling that our souls are alive, our breath is functioning and then that our minds are working however they are working. This daily attention to our heart-mind-body connection and individual parts has been there for 2 millennia at least, there to help us get ready to face each day. If we use it.
The other practice I marveled at was one that resonated for me – the technique of being able to express your personal narrative in a coherent way so that, even if you led a chaotic life, you could make sense of it and recover your own strengths. Siegel uses this technique to great effect with some of his patients, describing what parts of the brain he is working on.
It resonated for me because my family tells very different narratives about the experiences in our family – they seem to overlap only in the broadest sense. And at the same time, my ability to change my share of the narrative—to see where others were coming from, why they might have acted as they did—has helped me to heal and forgive. It also resonated for me because that’s what so much of the Torah is—our family narrative, trying to make coherence out of the chaotic world we lived in. And the fact that we revisit it every year, and look at the stories and lessons in the light of this moment, this time in our lives, teaches us that we can change our narratives and the meaning invested in them at any time. We are not doomed to repeat the same version forever, Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. We can turn, change part of the story and adapt to different circumstances.
That’s only a taste of how neuroscience is illuminating not only our brains, but how Jewish practice has been doing this for millennia. One of our closely guarded secrets, apparently – that I want to share with you. It’s only one taste of what Jewish practice could add to your already full lives.
I guess it’s just that I so love to see so many of you here these holy days and selfishly want to see you here more often. I love to pray in a large group. (I love to pray in a small group.) I love to study with multiple voices, I love to share. I love to hear your narratives. I love to breathe with you all and your neshamas. So my final question:
What would bring you to practice and play in the queen’s orchestra? Not to please the queen or not only to please the queen. But to find harmonies and connections that will empower you in your daily life? Consider this an invitation to come and learn. Let me know and we’ll see what music we can make together.