from the heart of jerusalem

Making music with what you have


Some time ago I received this story via e-mail:

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Lincoln Center. Anyone who has ever been to a Perlman concert, knows that getting on stage is no small achievement for him, having been stricken with polio as a child, with braces on both legs and walking with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, is a moving sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up his violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

This time, something went wrong. As he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap — it went off like gunfire across the room. People who were there that night assumed that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off the stage, to either find another violin or else find another string for this one. Or wait for someone to bring him another. But he didn’t. Instead he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again.

The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.

Of course, it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, you know that. But that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing and recomposing the piece in his head. At one point it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before.

When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. Everyone was on his or her feet, clapping and cheering, doing everything they could to show how much they appreciated what he had done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience, and said, not boastfully, but in a quiet reverent tone: “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

This is the story of Joseph, which began in earnest in this week’s parsha, Vayeshev.

• • •

If ever there was a character who had the right to give up on himself, and on G-d, it was Joseph. Nearly killed and then sold into slavery by his brothers; abandoned by his family; falsely accused and imprisoned by Potiphar, the master to whom he had shown unconditional loyalty; and forgotten even by the fellow inmates he helped in prison, Joseph might have fotten about G-d, much as G-d seemed to have forgotten about him. And one would certainly have expected, after 12 years wallowing in the prison-pits of ancient Egypt, that Joseph would give up on himself. Yet neither was the case.

Recall that when his brothers sold him into slavery, he had no way of knowing that they later dipped his special striped coat in sheep blood, convincing their father Yaakov that he was dead. He must have wondered why Yaakov did not come looking for him. Now, after nearly ten years in the pit, an insignificant slave whose grandiose dreams of the sun, the moon and the stars must seem far, far away, is all alone.

In offering to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners (the butler and the baker) Joseph’s choice of language is nothing short of incredible: “Va’Yomer Aleihem Yosef: Ha’Lo L’Elokim Pitronim; Sipru’ Na Li.” (“And Joseph said to them: any interpretations belong to G-d, but feel free to share your dreams with me”) (Bereishit 40:8).

Notice that Joseph does not suggest that it is G-d who helps him to interpret dreams. Rather, it is all G-d. And he, Joseph, has absolutely nothing to do with it.

In this week’s parsha, Miketz, Pharaoh has a dream that no one else seems able to interpret. Finally, the butler remembers Joseph and Joseph is called before the great Pharaoh.

“And Pharaoh said to Yosef: I have dreamed a dream, and no-one can solve it, and I have heard of you, saying: you will hear a dream and interpret it” (41:15).

Joseph is in an extraordinary position here. A Hebrew slave, given the attention of the ruler of the known world, it would have been a normal human reaction for Joseph to respond by saying that indeed, he has been granted this gift: the ability to interpret dreams. But Joseph’s reaction is one of complete self-effacement: “Bila’dai! Elokim Ya’aneh Et She’lom Pharaoh.” )“Without me! G-d will answer the well-being of Pharaoh”) (41:16).

Such total self-effacement and willingness to accept G-d as the source of everything requires tremendous work and character development. And to reach this level of acceptance of G-d as the source of all things, a person might lose their own sense of self. After all, if it is really  G-d who does everything, then who am I?

Such a person might inevitably remain forever in the background of human events, never assuming any leadership role or accepting any responsibility, because after all, if everything is in the hands of G-d, who am I? Yet, regarding Joseph, nothing could be further from the truth.

From where does this lowly slave, abandoned by his family and loved ones, betrayed by his sponsors, and left to rot in the filth and despair of ancient Egypt’s penal system, acquire the self confidence and self-image necessary to stand so tall, under such challenging circumstances as to be placed in charge of all Egypt? 

Somehow, G-d is everything and he, Joseph, and the brothers and everyone else are merely puppets in the play. And yet, Joseph still stands before an entire Empire, second in command only to Pharaoh himself, and demands respect. How does one achieve this balance?

Perhaps Joseph finds the balance between recognizing that G-d is everything, and he is nothing, and the recognition that if he is created by G-d, then he must really be something. If G-d created me, perceives Yosef, and the entire world along with me, then this is the world G-d created for me — and somehow, in this world is my purpose.

We often spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to get to where we think we have to go. We want a life that is different from the one we have, and so we work hard to make a living and have a better life.

The message of Joseph is to spend less time making a living, and more time making a life. This is the world I am given, and it is in this world that I can achieve what I was meant to accomplish. That is why G-d put me here.

May we all be blessed to achieve the inner peace that comes from recognizing that everything is from G-d, as well as being blessed to achieve great things by embracing what we are meant to do with all that G-d gives us.

A version of this column appeared in 2012.