In the Grave

First Clown:
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! ‘a pour’d a flagon
of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was, sir,
Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.

Hamlet:
This? [Takes the skull]

First Clown:
E’en that.

Hamlet:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.

Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 179–188

Rabbi:

Where do you find God?

Kindergartener: 

In the grave.

Davis Academy Kabbalat Shabbat 

           One of the greatest joys of working with children is you never (yes, NEVER), know what they’re going to say. Early this week a 3rd grader shared with me that, “God created life by creating love.” Then, later that day, a 7th grader asked me if he could donate a portion of his bar mitzvah money to The Davis Academy as a way of “thanking the school for making him who he is.” And then, there’s the wonderfully macabre statement of the kindergartener shared above. When I say that there was a collective gasp from the 300+ adults that were present when this remarked was made, I mean it.

          Imagine the scene, a visiting rabbi, Rick Jacobs, the new president of the URJ, no less, asked the question: “Where can I find God?” Responses, “In the sky”; “In your heart”; “Everywhere”; “In the sky”; and then, “In the grave.” Followed by collective gasp.

         I couldn’t help but smile. Now I happen to know that this particular kindergartener has been curious about death lately. Thankfully he hasn’t suffered a recent personal loss or anything like that. Rather, he’s very curious about death and his parents have very open conversations on the topic. But I couldn’t help but smile because he’s absolutely right.

         When Hamlet confronted the skull of his old comrade, Yorick, his imagination was “abhorr’d”. He can’t grasp that something so vital could cease to be. It’s an affront to his desire to dwell in a meaningful and compassionate universe.

          When our kindergarten student thinks of death he, knowingly or not, is expressing his belief that death is a part of life. He’s expressing the belief that as God gives us life, so too God is present with us when the light of life is extinguished. He’s paraphrasing the traditional Jewish blessing, recited upon learning of someone’s death: Baruch Dayan Ha-emet, Blessed is the True Judge. He may even be making the point made by many an existentialist philosopher that the awareness of our mortality is the key fact that compels us to make the most of each day.

          How blessed we are to have children to teach us life’s most profound lessons!

Life Lessons from the Recording Studio

Context: I’m working on an album of original Jewish music. I wrote the tunes and am arranging them (i.e. giving them shape, texture, and form) with an amazingly gifted musician/producer/friend named Will Roberston as well as a cast of unbelievably talented characters including Jamie Kudlats, Guy Strauss, Bob Michek, and Kendrick Phillips. It’s my first time in the recording studio in any meaningful way and I’m finding the process to be very enlightening. As is often the case, a particular venue or set of experiences ends up being a microcosm of “life in general.” That’s proving to be true of the recording studio. So here are a few life lessons I attribute to the recording studio… This list is totally incomplete and not in any particular order, but here goes. I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) to chronicle my own experiences and 2) with the hopes that it will resonate with others, even if they haven’t ever recorded an album of original Jewish music!

1. The power of collaboration. I wrote a bunch of tunes. Good for me. Pat on the back. But the truth is that the music could never realize its full potential (if such a thing is ever possible) without the partnership and involvement of others. My role as “songwriter” isn’t to cram a fully realized musical vision down peoples’ throats, but rather to elicit the creativity, generosity, talents, and energies of others. My role is to facilitate and celebrate collaboration. And though the process is still unfolding, I can say with absolute certainty that openness to collaboration has radically impacted every level of this recording project, from the songs themselves to the musicians involved. Rather than being simply about recording music, collaboration has made this project about creating music, exploring music, celebrating music, and building relationships and community through music. Collaboration has made this a holy process, which, given the content of the music, is wholly appropriate.

2. Humility. Someone once attributed the following quote to Jewish tradition in a letter I received:

“The adornment of knowledge is wisdom, the adornment of wisdom is humility.” 

     If ever there were words to live by! Far from being a kind of self-abasement, true humility is the recognition that, vast though our individual gifts may be, what’s ours alone is not enough. Humility is what allows us to seek out people who have greater experience than we do. It’s what allows us to apprentice ourselves, to learn from others, to be grateful, and to be open-minded. Humility is the capacity to learn and the ability to celebrate (rather than fear or attempt to hide) all that you don’t yet know. It also means recognizing that there are some things you may never be able to do at the level you’d like (though it doesn’t mean abandoning the pursuit!). For example, humility means recognizing that a song may sound better with another lead vocalist even though it’s “your” song, or that, actually, there’s someone out there who can play a better guitar part. Humility is what transforms a potential inadequacy into a strength. Not only is humility an “adornment” of wisdom, but it is also a prerequisite.

3. Ego is a double-edged sword. It would be hard to write songs without an ego. It would be hard to have the nerve to believe that the songs I write with a guitar in my home when no one else is around have any value beyond being a nice hobby… without an ego. It would be hard to set aside time from my amazing family (and my 3 month old daughter in particular) to go into a recording studio to produce these songs without an ego. You get the point. And yet, as we all know, ego is truly a double-edged sword. Ego is responsible for all sorts of mishaps, musical and otherwise. Ego can be a stumbling block, it can make you blind, it can make you fearful, and it can lead you astray. Rather than ennobling you and filling your life with a sense of purpose, it can cuckold and trap you. If the songs I’ve written have any life whatsoever, it will be because the collaborative process has keep the question of ego in the fore. If my ego were unchecked then the songs themselves would have no room to grow, mature, and evolve. Being as conscious as possible of ego is the first step in making sure that ego works for you and not against you.

4. Music is metaphysical. “Metaphysical” is a big word and I’m not sure I fully understand it (but here goes…). For me music is metaphysical because it starts with the physical– bodies, musical instruments, voices, guitars, etc… but quickly moves beyond the purely physical. The minute you hit record and start editing, music becomes metaphysical. Yesterday Will Roberston did an awesome thing: he wrote an entire choral arrangement and recorded it completely himself. Hearing Will’s voice singing 10 different parts simultaneously helped me to understand that music is indeed metaphysical. The fact that you can detach your voice from your vocal chords and sing along with yourself x10 through the act of recording means that music is metaphysical. Also, the fact that Will can write a 10 part chorale arrangement wherein all the different parts blend and complement one another creating an absolutely magnificent and glorious soundscape– this wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t laws of harmony and melody that came, if not from God, then certainly from some realm other than the purely physical. I really believe this, and feel sad for anyone that hasn’t ever sensed something metaphysical (musical or otherwise). I guess that’s what metaphysical means– something is metaphysical when it attests to the fact that there’s a bigger picture to the world than physical, material stuff of our existence. Music is metaphysical, so is love, community, laughter, the connection between generations, and a bunch of other stuff. Seek and ye shall find I suppose!

Well, that’s all for now. I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit. It is great writing for an “imagined audience.” It provides a strangely metaphysical motivation to articulate some of these random thoughts.

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”