On Friday evening we welcomed four talented musicians to our Shabbat services. (They were Erica von Kleist on saxophone and flute, Richie Barshay on drums, Ike Sturm on bass, and David Virelles on piano.) To help mark this occasion I delivered the following sermon.
On this evening and this particular Shabbat I am thinking about Leonard Chess, and of course his brother Phil. Let me tell you about the Chess brothers. They were the founders of Chess records, one of the most, if not the most influential labels in the early Blues scene. Leonard was born in Poland, in an area that is now Belarus, to a Jewish family. He came to Chicago in 1928. The family changed their name to Chess from some name that I did not have the time to check with Annie about how to accurately pronounce. (His given name was: Lejzor Czyz.)
Chess Records, memorialized in the movie "Cadillac Records," one of my favorite movies (not because it stars Beyonce or Adrien Brody but because it is all about the Blues), is responsible for giving us many Blues greats. Here is a partial list of who they helped to discover: Muddy Waters (who wrote the song “Rollin’ Stone” that of course gave some fairly well known British group their name), Howlin Wolf (I personally like his song “Three Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy”), Bo Didly, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Etta James (“At Last”), Memphis Slim and Johnny Lee Hooker to name a few. And this in a nut shell helped to begin the rock and roll revolution that our children accept as God given and from Mount Sinai.
Now I am not thinking about Leonard Chess so that I can stand up here and say, “Well it is all because of the Jewish people that we enjoy Rock and Roll.” That is beyond even my usual healthy dose of chutzpah. Furthermore I don’t very much like the attempt to reclaim everything positive as our own (we have hundreds of Nobel Prize winners, invented the cell phone etc.) and distance ourselves from everything negative. (This week’s papers were certainly a reminder that two years is not nearly enough time to forget the negative.) I am thinking instead about Leonard Chess because I want to say something about music and Judaism.
Everyone thinks religion and music, and Judaism and music are separate categories. My religion belongs over here and my music belongs over there. Music is my secular life. It is about parties and dancing. Religion is about services and studying. Music is about fun. Religion is about seriousness. Music is new and creative. Religion is old and traditional.
In a word, “Wrong!” We belong to a people who have made dancing a commandment and singing an obligation. So why should they be separate? Why can’t religion and music share goals?
Music has a way of touching our souls that little else can achieve. A song can spark a tear. A song can bring a smile. That is the reason why every couple has a song. Forgive me for being so blunt but I have yet to meet a couple who says that they first danced to the Torah portion Lech Lecha.
For the past few months I have been talking about R&B Shabbat and have received more than a few quizzical looks. But why must they be antithetical? To my mind Shabbat has a great rhythm and even some blues. There is the rhythm of the day and its many prayers. And there are the blues of longing for that first Shabbat and pining after the ultimate Shabbat.
We do a disservice to ourselves and our Judaism when we struggle to maintain separate categories and spheres. Divided selves are unhealthy and unwise.
In this week’s Torah portion we read of Joseph and his brothers traveling to the land of Israel to bury their father Jacob. The Torah records no details of what I imagined must have been weeks of travel. What did they say to each other on this painful journey?
We do read of what the brothers say to Joseph immediately upon their return. They bow before him and say, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” Joseph responds, “Have no fear! Am I substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50:18-21)
When Joseph and his brothers left for Israel they were a fractured family. They were brothers who had not yet forgiven themselves for the wrong they had done to Joseph. And there was Joseph, a man far too enamored of himself and his talents. When they return from their journey they are shalem; they are whole; they are again a family. Although we do not know what they said to each other, we do know that they are changed because of their journey.
Much of the time we spend worrying ourselves about how to get from A to B or how to get one kid from here and another to there. In New York it is a pastime to debate the best routes so as to minimize time spent in traffic and the length of the trip. But journeying is about the trip more than the destination. Journeying often ends up in places that were unintended.
When you truly listen to a song, when you open your ears and more importantly your heart, you do not know where it might take you. That is the power of music. That as well is the power of our Jewish faith and the journey we travel together.
So next time you are sitting in traffic, instead of yelling at other drivers or worse, each other, tell the kids to take off their wireless headphones and iPods and start singing together. Then it will no longer be about traffic but about your family’s journey. And then whenever you arrive at your destination will be secondary to where that journey takes you.