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Reading Music

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 wasn’t even conscious I wanted one.

“How did you know?” I sputtered.

“I just listened,” she replied, “For twenty years you’ve been muttering that someday you’d like to learn how to play the clarinet. I checked with the kids, they heard it too. Apparently you’re the only one who never knew.”

Well, I’ve 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 haven’t had any feelers yet from major symphony orchestras, but it’s only been six months. And besides, I still can’t read music very well. Reading music, it’s 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 there’s 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 there’s this little vertical line there.”
She says, “You’re not supposed to play that.”
I say, “I’m not playing it.”
She says, “Yes, you are. You’re pausing at each one!”
I say, “But then how would anyone know it’s 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 they’re written in the sheet music. They’re there to make it easier for you to count time but the divisions are only arbitrary super-impositions. They’re 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.To ask: "Why or how does The One become many?" is effectively to ask how (and why) did God create the world. Why would God, The One, create this world of separation?

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.They are still mutually exclusive but to realize that one resides within the other is itself already a kind of monistic and mystical vision.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 God.

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 vertical line.

Contributed by: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

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Lawrence Kushner

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