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Beauty Will Save the World – Kol Nidre Sermon 2013

Kol Nidre Sermon 2013, Congregation Habonim of Toronto

“Beauty Will Save the World”

A young Rabbi was studying, and as he was doing so, he was using the
classic singsong that accompanied the intense study of one the pages of
the Talmud… Nearby his baby was crying. His father in law, also a rabbi,
walked into the room. “Do you not hear the baby crying?” he asked him
as he went over to comfort the baby. I was too immersed in my studies”,
the aspiring young rabbi answered.
Responded the elderly rabbi, "Someone who studies Torah, but does not
hear the cry of a baby, is not studying Torah properly."
I believe this story applies to any activity we are involved in the Jewish
faith. No matter how important, wonderful or beautiful it is - it could be
Torah study, it could be Jewish art, it could be a Walk for Israel- nothing
should ever blind us to the cry of someone else, and certainly not the cry
of a child.
And I want to carry over this idea to the role of Jewish music in our
We have just head the Kol Nidre and its moving melody which stirs the
very depths of our souls. In fact, if the Kol Nidre did not have the deeply
evocative melody that has been written for it, I doubt it would have the
same impact, the same gravitas, the same solemnity, which we attribute
to perhaps the most pivotal moment of the High Holiday prayers.2
It's obvious that music can touch us, and can reach us in a way that
perhaps no other medium can - but when it does, in the context of a
Jewish religious experience, what should it inspire us to do? In what
directions, should this musical expression take us?
I thought about this question because of the musical heritage of this
synagogue and because one of our synagogues greatest strengths has
been - and still is - its music. We have had outstanding cantors, past and
present, and the music of the Habonim Youth Choir has been heard far
and wide all over the world.
And now we have a new exceptionally talented and dedicated choir,
which is following in their footsteps.
So what is the purpose of music in Jewish tradition?
To answer this question, I want you to think about a line from a Metric
Song called "Give Me Sympathy"…
Who'd you rather be?
The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
From a Jewish perspective the answer would be: The Beatles, and this is
not just because they had a Jewish manager..
Basically it's because of the overall message of the Beatles.
The Beatles were never really nihilists, or cynical, or destructive….
Of course they had their share of frivolous songs (Octopus Garden,
Yellow Submarine etc.) but much of their material, especially as they
matured, was about social criticism, love and hope and peace….
Think of Nowhere Man, Yesterday, Let It Be, All the Lonely People, and
of course Give Peace a Chance (which many of you know from previous
years has Jewish roots).
And John Lennon's Imagine, perhaps the world’s most well known peace
The Beatles, through their music, sought to improve the world. Their Art
was not there primarily for enjoyment or satisfaction - it was being
created to move humanity in a positive social direction.
(I know that we might lose a few Habonim members who are diehard
Rolling Stones – believe you me people have left our shul for lesser
reasons- but some times you have take a stand…)
So now let us move back to our original question. What is the purpose of
music in a Jewish context?
And to answer this question, let me elucidate a basic Jewish principle:
Life is full of pleasurable activities, opportunities and moments. One
approach is to simply live a life in pursuit of these pleasures. Another
approach is to avoid these pleasures like the devil.
The Jewish approach is to take all the wonderful things that life has to
offer, and imbue them with meaning, to raise them up to a higher level,
so that we sanctify the experience and thereby sanctify our lives.
The rabbis taught us that we should make at least 100 blessings a day
and they assigned blessings for a myriad of experiences, including:
- When you take your first breath, you get up in the morning, when you
go to sleep at night - you hear thunder and see lighting - you drink a
glass of wine - you have a wonderful meal, you eat a new fruit, you meet
up with an old friend, when someone is born, someone reaches their
12th or 13 year, someone gets married, when you buy a new home or a
new article of clothing or a significant utensil (not sure if the Iphone5S
falls into this category) – and that’s only a partial list…
The idea is to take the many experiences that happen to us during the
day, or during the year, and to raise them up - in Kabbalistic language -
to elevate their sparks of holiness and reunite them with the divine.
Now let us return to the original question - the response we should have
when listening to music in a Jewish context:
I believe there are 4 possible responses, depending on the content of the
music and the context in which it is being presented.
i) Jewish music seeks to inspire in us the expression of gratitude to our
Creator for being alive, and an appreciation for the grandeur of the
I remember hearing a Musician once say: I know there is a God
because of the existence of music.
For those of you who have difficulty relating to the concept of God, then
music should help you connect with the infinite wonder, grandeur and
exquisite beauty that can be experienced in our universe.
ii) Jewish music should cause us to have certain emotions: Joy, sadness,
self-reflection, these are all outcomes of Jewish musical expression
depending on the context. Certainly when listening to Kol Nidre a
feeling of pathos, of roads not taken, of hands not extended and of love
not sufficiently shared - and of the resolve to do better - and the belief we
can do better -, might be among the sought after emotional responses
iii) Jewish music is a communal experience, to be shared with others, not
a self-directed act experienced just for its own pleasure. It should inspire
within us a feeling of unity and sisterhood and brotherhood with
everyone whom we are sharing the experience with. At times, the feeling
of singing with others can be so unifying that you even lose your sense of
self, or of any boundaries between you and the person next to you, as
your voices blend together and you become part of a movement in
humanity much larger than just yourself.
iv) In the end, Jewish music should inspire us to work toward building a
better world for all humanity. It is no accident that the word Shalom
appears throughout the Jewish prayer book so many times, and that so
many songs have been written to words that express a hope for peace:
Sim Shalom, Shalom Rav, Oseh Shalom, Ode Yavo Shalom, Lo Yisa Goy,
Shalom Aleichem & Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.
About 20 years ago, I was in Israel, and we were taken one Friday night
to an almost hidden part of Jerusalem. It was late Friday night, it was a
Chasidic neighborhood near Meah Shearim, and it was the first time I
ever experienced time travel.
We walked into this large hall, and there hundreds, perhaps thousands
of Chasidim, singing wordless melodies for hours in front of their
venerated, aged Rebbe who kept urging them on and on with the wave
of his hand.
The fervent way they sang, the concentration on their faces, the pure
devotion in their expressions - it was if I had been transported thousands
of miles away and hundreds of years, back to Poland 200 years ago, and
was in one of the courts of the Grand Chasidic Rebbes.
They sang these intricate melodies for hours, their eyes often closed and
they indeed seemed like they forgot about themselves as their voices
became one, as they lost themselves in the music and their souls
appeared to be united in common cause.
The music, of course, was beautiful, but in the process they were
reaching a higher level of spirituality, of wonder, of gratitude, of
brotherhood, of unity.
They sang, as if their singing alone could save the world
This distinction of art for art’s sake, and art bringing us to a higher. more
transcendent purpose was probably brought home to me most recently,
in the contrast between two lives of two musicians that I happen to read
about at the same time.
Let take you back to the story of Shmuel Gogol:
Shmuel Gogol was born in 1924 in Warsaw, Poland. After his mother's
death and his father's expulsion from Poland, his grandmother raised
him. Eventually she left him in the care of the Janusz Korzack the famous
Polish Jewish Doctor, Author and Orphanage Director.
One day, Gogol saw a Polish boy on the street playing a harmonica and
his heart became set on receiving one. Korzack offered children money
for every tooth that fell out, so Gogol asked Korzack for a harmonica
instead of money after a number of his teeth fell out. Gogol received two 7
harmonicas from Korzack.
In 1940, the orphanage was forced to move to the ghetto and Gogol was
witness to tremendous suffering, starvation and death every day in the
Ghetto. Korzack and his orphans were all deported from Warsaw to
Treblinka where they were all murdered in August of 1942, but before
that Gogol's grandmother smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to
Makow Mazowiecki, to his uncle in the ghetto there.
After months of hiding and running he was eventually deported
to Auschwitz, where all his possessions were taken from him, including
his precious harmonicas. One day he heard a prisoner playing the
harmonica – he begged him for his harmonica, but the prisoner insisted
on 3 weeks of rations – a sure death sentence for the young Shmuel.
Eventually, they agreed upon a deal, having Shmuel trade 2 weeks of his
bread rations in return for the instrument.
One day, an SS officer heard Shmuel Gogol playing the harmonica and
moved him to the camp orchestra where he played as the Jews entered
the gas chambers. Gogol played knowing where the people were going.
One time he opened his eyes and saw his two cousins entering the gas
chambers, and from then on he decided never to open his eyes again
when he played.
He also vowed to himself that if he survived he would devote his life to
playing the harmonica, and would teach children to play the harmonica.
After the war Gogol moved to Israel. In 1963 he fulfilled his vow, and
founded the "Children's Harmonica Orchestra of Ramat Gan”, later
named after him. In 1990, he first returned to Auschwitz , where he
performed with his children's harmonica orchestra the song " My Shetel
Belz" (My Village Belz) the same melody he performed with the
Auschwitz Orchestra when Jews were being marched into the gas
In 1993, Gogol received a request from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin to join him for an official trip to Poland to mark the 50th
anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Despite his friends’
objections who were worried about his health, Google insisted on going.
He said: "I will play even if it costs me my life", according to journalist
Noah Kliger.
He accompanied the Israeli Prime Minister to Warsaw and then to
Auschwitz, again playing My Shetel Belz" (My Village Belz) the same
melody he performed with the Auschwitz Orchestra when Jews were
being marched into the gas chambers.
He came off the stage and told those around him – Sagarti Maagal, "I
have closed a circle".
About a month after this trip Gogol died.
At the same time that I came across the story of Shmuel Gogol, I was
reminded of the story of one of America's most legendary jazz
trumpeter's. I am hesitant to use his name, because of his tragic fate, and
because I do not think we will ever know the entire story of why his life
ended up the way it did….
This musician was so gifted – ruggedly handsome and endlessly talented
both instrumentally and vocally – he was once described as "James Dean
and Frank Sinatra rolled into one." But, sadly, his many drug addictions,
interfered with his promise, and he was in and out of jail regularly for
much of his life before he met his untimely end.
In 1968, he was savagely beaten (while attempting to buy drugs) after a
gig in San Francisco, sustaining severe cuts on the lips and broken front
teeth (already weakend from drug abuse), which ruined his embouchure.
He died in an Amsterdam hotel room in 1988 of a drug overdose.
For Shmuel Gogol, music was so important, that he traded his teeth for it
as a child, and as an adult, he traded it for two weeks of rations in a
place that could have meant the difference between life and death.
For the other, because of his addiction, he literally lost his teeth, his
ability to play music, and then his life, perhaps in part, because of a lack
of a higher purpose, a transcendent meaning to his gift.
Shmuel Gogol saw the gift of music as a higher calling, to be sacrificed
for, to inspire others, to teach children, even to play music in the very
place of one's utmost suffering, if, in his words, "that would close the
The other musician, as brilliant as he was, met his early end, perhaps
because his commitment to music did not seem to encompass a higher
purpose, an overall commitment to life, to holiness, to a veneration of the
Addiction is a very complicated issue - indeed its an illness- and I don't
want to diminish the challenges that this jazz musician faced - but
perhaps if he were inspired to follow a path that viewed art and music as
an expression of the sanctity of the human experience - perhaps things
would have turned out differently for him. 
My point here is this:
Life, art, music - when dedicated to a higher purpose, to a noble goal, to
the betterment of the human condition - is always more preferable to a
life simply pursued for its own pleasure.
Dostoyevsky famously said, "Beauty will save the world." What I believe
he meant by this was that, “the spiritual beauty of art and truth and
kindness and compassion all mingled together for the betterment of
humanity, that is indeed what will “save the world”
Let me close with one last story that interweaves the concept of music,
beauty and the betterment of humanity….
A survivor told me about her grandfather, the rabbi of Rokytno, who fled
into the forest with his sickly son. Nearby there was a cloister for monks,
and the monks, who knew the rabbi was in the forest, would come out
every day and sing their hymns, but this time change the Polish words to
say, "Please come out of the forest and we will help you, give you food,
and shelter and warmth." But the rabbi wasn't sure – you never knew
who was your friend and who was your foe in those years - until one day
his already very ill son dies, and the rabbi said, so what worse can befall
So he ran out of the woods - the monks saw him, and they grabbed him,
wrestled him to ground and threw a monk's cloak over him, and that his
how he stayed, disguised as a monk until the end of the war. The monks
said to him, “we are of different faiths, but that does not matter. You are
a holy man and we must save you, like we would save our own…."
I don’t think there is any more beautiful music that will be heard ever
again – because the song wasn’t just melodious, it was reaching across
boundaries, cultures and religions to save a human life..
As Dostoyevsky said, "Beauty will save the world."
So as we listen to the beautiful choir and our wonderful cantors singing, I
would like you to respond in some of the ways mentioned above:
i) With Gratitude to the creator for being alive, and an appreciation for
the wonder, grandeur and exquisite beauty that can be experience in our
ii) With Feelings of joy, or sadness, or self-reflection, depending on the
context and content of the music.
iii) With a feeling of unity, and sisterhood and brotherhood with
everyone we are sharing the experience with, and a feeling being part of
the much larger human family.
iv) With the inspiration to work toward building a better world for all
With this I wish you all a sweet New Year, a year full of wonderful music
inspiring us to acts of love, of kindness of compassion and of peace.
Shana Tova…
And with this in mind, I would like to invite Elisa Goldman to sing for us
what is kind of Habonim's theme song:
Lay Down Your Arms – a song written by an Israeli soldier whose
melody and message are equally profound especially as the crisis in
Syria continues to focus the attention of the world.
The Hebrew words read, “And they shall beat their swords into
ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not raise
up arms against nation neither shall they learn war any more..
Sermon Delivered by Eli Rubenstein, September 13, 2013

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784