On a cold January morning during rush hour, at a Washington, DC metro station, a man wearing blue jeans, a tee-shirt and a baseball cap takes out his violin and begins to play. Although the scene looks much like any street performance, it’s actually a stunt. This is not just any street musician. This is master violinist, Joshua Bell.
A few years ago, The Washington Post invited Joshua Bell to participate in a social experiment. They wondered: what would commuters do if they encountered exquisite music during their rush to get to work? Without realizing that they were listening to a one-time child prodigy whose intricate music was being played on an expensive violin, and who just the evening prior had commanded on average $100 a seat at the symphony hall, would people stop for beauty?
In the almost 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played, 1,094 people hurried past him. Out of the 1,094 people, how many do you think stopped to take in the performance for at least for a minute? It was 7. 7 people stopped to listen for a minute, several others paused to notice for just a split second– a few were parents whose children, captivated by the music, tried to slow them down. There was never a crowd that gathered and there was no applause after each song concluded. Most people moved along, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
The Washington Post sought to understand: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? Would people stop?
This week, we stop. In this week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh, the narrative takes a break, and pauses to dwell on the details of beauty. The Torah instructs: “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests…Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve me as priest. These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash…You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design…make it of gold, of blue, purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen…Set in it mounted stones, in 4 rows of stones.”
The intricate details for the design of the priestly garments continue for many verses beyond. This part of the Torah is not known as the most gripping; the detailed lists about materials, colors and measurements don’t move us along in our story. We might be pulled to the compelling struggles of the patriarchs and matriarchs, or about the powerful journey of liberation through the crossing of the sea. Yet, now that the Israelites have survived the drama of famine, slavery and escape, they need to pause–to dwell on beauty. And so do we.
Whether in the desert wilderness, or in the metro station, or in this particularly wintry week, we too, need beauty. We need to stop.
Cease. This is the literal translation of Shabbat. As is typical in Reform Judaism, our congregation’s approach to Shabbat involves more positive commandments than negative commandments—we focus more on the spirit of the law than the letter of the law. We don’t typically refrain from electricity, media, grocery shopping, soccer or even work. Instead, we make Shabbat a day when we try to find time for community, reflection, relationship, celebration, gratitude. But here’s where tradition has something to teach: if we are to reach our potential heights in Shabbat celebration, in order to find that time, we need to carve it out.
Without carving something out, removing something, without refraining from something, life is too crowded and we are pulled to move along. Just to arrive at this service, many of you refrained from working for the last hour or 2 of your Friday business day. What else needs to stop so that Shabbat beauty may transcend?
If I remove my iphone earpiece on my car-ride home, might I better hear the music of Shabbat! If I pause from seeing a mess in my house and compulsively going to clean it when I return later tonight, might I better look into the eyes of my family? If I cease from tapping the keys on my laptop tomorrow morning, might I better reach out my hand to touch a loved one?
Lightening does not strike and God does not gasp, when we turn on the computer, or clean, on the Sabbath. But, deeply taking in the beauty and inspiration of Shabbat, demands space. When we cease, that’s when Shabbat beauty has the chance to transcend.
Every other day of the week, we put one foot in front of the other, and move forward. On Shabbat, we put one foot in front of the other, in our inner-life. We move forward, spiritually, as we contemplate gratitude, our values, and our purpose in the world.
With this intention, we can actually train ourselves to pay more attention to the world around us and to notice what is right under our noses, even during the 6 days of the week. When we first began Jewish meditation here, I was worried that if I stopped squirming, or stopped mentally creating a to-do list, or stopped looking around the room, that I would fall asleep. I was scared to stop! Even the act of pressing pause, requires practice. And, whether it be through prayer, meditation, or a reflective Shabbat walk, when we do practice mindfulness, we train– to see better, to hear better, to touch better—to be more in-tune with all that surrounds us, in any given moment. Shabbat is not a vacation or a luxury; Shabbat is our way to live our lives to the fullest.
So, picture it. In that metro station on that cold January morning, how many of us would have walked right past the master violinist? Exquisite music would not have been on our calendar for that morning, and we might not have found the space for it.
And so, we need the spiritual training, of the 7th day. May we stop in our footsteps, making space for Shabbat, that beauty might transcend.