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Overcoming Obstacles (YK 5775)

Yizkor is a time we think about death. Yizkor is about remembering. This summer we have seen more than our fill of death. But probably nothing captured our attention as intensely as the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer & Eyal Yifrah. For 18 days the world Jewish community stopped what we were doing and we prayed. In Israel all attention was focused upon finding the boys. During this time and in the aftermath of the tragedy, one figure stood out, one of the bereaved mothers, Rachel Fraenkel. With thanks to my colleague David Abramson for collecting some amazing stories about Rachel Fraenkel, I share with you some thoughts before Yizkor.

There was a scene at the Kotel during the time the boys were missing where Rachel Fraenkel address a group of Yeshiva girls who had come to support her. She told them four things: 1) that she believed that the boys would return; 2) if they did not, it was because God is not our servant; 3) if, God forbid, the worst happens, they must not be broken; and 4) stay united. What an amazing sentiment. When most people pray, they pray for something – let me pass this test, let me arrive safely, let the biopsy be negative. We often think of universe as a giant dispensary, we put in our prayer and we expect, we hope that our request will pop out. But Rachel Fraenkel reminded us that is not how the universe works, that is not how God functions; "God is not our servant", we can turn to God for strength and inspiration, to help us endure whatever may come, we don't get to tell God what to do.

And then the worst was discovered, these parents had lost their sons. At the funeral Rachel eulogized her son saying, "God chose these boys who were filled with goodness and love as the 'poster children' who highlighted how different they were from their murders." And then as she had done before, she thanked the soldiers and the police, "You promised that you would find them and bring them back and you brought them back. This too is a great kindness." She thanked God for family, for friends and for community and the strength they provided. And in the end she spoke of healing, "Rest in peace my child. We will learn to sing without you." And then Rachel Fraenkel did something that is common in our community, but had never been done publically in Israel before, she recited the Mourner's Kaddish for her son; and the Rosh Yeshiva and the chief rabbis of Israel responded: Amen.

When Rachel got up from shiva, she again faced the press and decried the killing of a Muslim teen in retaliation for her son's death. She could have been filled with hatred and vitriol, but instead, she said, "No parents should have to go through what they are going through. We feel the pain of Mohammed Abu Khdeir's parents." She is clearly an impressive person.

Rachel Fraenkel exemplifies what our tradition encourages us to aspires to; grace, dignity and faith in the face of adversity. Yizkor is both about remembering the past, but also about dedicating ourselves to building a better future. As my colleague Jack Reimer likes to say, "All stories are true and some of them even happened" reminding us that it is not the facts that provide inspiration. One of the most inspirational stories is one that is most definitely true, but never happened.

Yitzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.

To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome 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 the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.

By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just 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. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.

We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find another violin or else find another string for this one.

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, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Yitzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing 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. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering; doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.

He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, 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."

What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life - not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings.

So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music ... at first with all that we have , and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left. [Article from the Houston Chronicle, Feb. 10, 2001]

To this I add the following from my colleague Stephen Parness, On July 26, 1986, at Tanglewood, the 14-year old Japanese violinist Midori played Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and String Orchestra. Bernstein conducted the orchestra at that concert. The performance was described by John Rockwell of The New York Times as being "technically near-perfect." During the fifth movement, a string broke on Midori's violin. She continued on the violin given her by the concertmaster. Suddenly a string broke on that violin as well. She then continued on the violin that the associate concertmaster gave her.

John Rockwell wrote, "When it was over, audience, orchestra and conductor-composer joined in giving her a cheering, stomping, whistling ovation." Two days later, during an interview, Midori said, "What could I do? My strings broke, and I didn't want to stop the music.'"

Whether it is Perlman, Midori, or any other soloist, the ability to restore the musical moment to perfection following the breaking of a string is a model of how to live our lives. When things are going well for us, we feel wonderful. But what happens when the unexpected intrudes upon the moment? What is our reaction? Do we throw up our hands in defeat? Can we restore the music of our lives? Do we use the interrupted moment to intensify the beauty that was there before as we go forward? Can we again become one with the music? How does this play out over the course of our lives?

All of us have moments of brokenness and at this moment they stand out in our minds, but life is about overcoming those obstacles and making the most of our lives, making music with broken strings. May we make beautiful music together this year that has just begun. G'mar Hatimah Tovah!

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780