Last fall I turned fifty-five. To increase the likelihood that this
milestone would only be a joyous
event, my wonderful wife, the bride of my youth, after months of clandestine
research, to my utter surprise and dumbfounded astonishment, presented me with
a concert grade, Buffet, b-flat
clarinet. Now this would just be the story of another extravagant and expensive
gift were it not for one other fact. Prior to that moment last fall, I had
never, in my entire life even touched a clarinet! I wasnt even conscious I
How did you know? I sputtered.
I just listened, she replied, For twenty years youve been muttering
that someday youd like to learn how to play the clarinet. I checked with the
kids, they heard it too. Apparently youre the only one who never knew.
Well, Ive been taking lessons now for six months. (I come right after
an eleven-year-old Asian kid.) I am a little disappointed that I still havent
had any feelers yet from major symphony orchestras, but its only been six
months. And besides, I still cant read music very well. Reading music, its
becoming increasingly clear, will definitely take a few more months.
There are so many nuances: All those little Italian abbreviations;
Every Good Boy Does Fine; dotted eighth notes; keys with six sharps or six
flats; funny little squiggles and marks everywhere! And then theres keeping
time. To help you count the rhythm, at the end of every measure there is a
little vertical bar line. I count: one, two, three, four, end of measure; one,
two, three, four, end of measure.
My tutor says, Why do you
pause at the end of each measure?
I say, Because theres this
little vertical line there.
She says, Youre not supposed
to play that.
I say, Im not playing it.
She says, Yes, you are. Youre
pausing at each one!
I say, But then how would
anyone know its the end of a measure?
She sets down her clarinet and turns to face me. (This means she is
exasperated and something important is about to come.) The bar lines are not
there. Yes, I know theyre written in the sheet music. Theyre there to make it
easier for you to count time but the divisions are only arbitrary
super-impositions. Theyre not in the music.
This reminded me of something I learned from Professor Daniel Matt,
currently in the fifth year of a twenty yearlong project of translating the
Zohar. We have a word, he once
explained, for a leaf, a twig, a branch, a trunk, roots. The words make it
easier for us to comprehend reality. But we must be careful not to allow our
selves to fall into the habit of thinking that just because we have words for
all the parts of a tree that therefore a tree really has all those parts. The
leaf does not know when it stops being a leaf and becomes a twig. Nor does the
branch know when it is no longer a branch and now the trunk. And the trunk is
not aware that it has stopped being a trunk and is now the roots. Indeed, the
roots do not know when they stop being roots and become soil. Nor the soil the
moisture, nor the moisture the atmosphere, nor the atmosphere the sunlight. All
our names are only arbitrarily superimposed on seamless reality.
The Kabbalists explained it this way: There are two worlds. The Olam haPrayda, the world of separation - the
one we inhabit most of the time, this world, with its infinite array of
discrete and autonomous parts, each with its own name (and, if it's human, with
it's own agenda). And then there is the Olam
haYihud, the world of unity, a radical monism, wherein there are
neither parts nor names, where everything is one. Or perhaps more accurately,
everything is The One.
It will also come as no surprise that we will predictably understand
our relationship with God depending on whichever of the two worlds we happen to
inhabit at the moment. Most of the time the world is subdivided up into
measures, each bordered by vertical bar lines, or parts, each distinguished by
its own unique name and geographic coordinates. Our relationship with God here
is likewise personal, one of two discrete, autonomous, and independent actors.
And as in virtually all classical Western metaphors, God is other than the world - creating, designing,
supervising and hopefully running the place.
But the world of separation lies within
the bosom of the world of unity.Here we have another way to understand how we relate to God. In this world of
unity there are no names, no parts, no separations and therefore no
relationships, no bar lines, no measures. It is all one, The One, The One of
All Being, you know, God. In the
Yiddish, Alles ist Gott! And,
just as music happens only when we are no longer aware of the discrete notes,
measures, rhythms, in the same way, meaning comes when we comprehend the unity
which is the substrate of all being, when the world of separation gives way to
the world of unity. When, as in the imagination of the Kabbalists, we are
finally able to pronounce all of scripture as one, long, interruptible Name of
But alas, to learn how to make music, you must first subdivide the
whole score into smaller pieces, each one separated from the other by a little
Contributed by: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner