August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778
Last weekend, I heard Joshua Bell at Tanglewood. He was stunningly brilliant. His artistry, even if you know nothing about classical music, is profound. He is the winner of the Avery Fisher Award, one of the most prestigious in the American Classical world, and has won Grammy, Mercury, Gramophone and Echo Klassik awards for his many CDs. In 2011, Bell was named the Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields—he is the only person to hold this post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the orchestra in 1958. When you hear him play, the whole world becomes one gorgeous melody.
As we’re listening, my uncle casually mentioned that this was the guy who did that whole experiment. “What experiment?” I asked. And then I started to remember.
About ten years ago, the Washington Post wanted to know if ordinary Americans would appreciate extraordinary beauty if they happened upon it. As Gene Weingarten explained in his Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” “It was an experiment in context, perception and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: in a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
Here’s how the experiment worked: At 7:51 AM on January 12th, Joshua Bell positioned himself by a trash can in the L’Enfant Metro Station in Washington DC. He was wearing ordinary street clothes: a plain cotton shirt and a ball cap. He opened his violin case, took out his instrument, tossed in a few bills as seed money, and left the case open in front of him. No one seemed to notice that he took out a Stradivarius instead of a run-of-the-mill violin.
On that January morning, Bell began playing one of the most difficult pieces ever written for violin— “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. As Bell explains, it’s “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”
Three minutes pass. 63 people rush by without pause; some don’t even turn their heads to notice. One man pauses to look for a beat, but then keeps going. A woman quickly tosses a small donation in the case and walks away. It takes a full six minutes for someone to stop to listen even for a bit. After Shabbos, if you haven’t seen the YouTube clip, you should look it up—it’s remarkable. The most incredible violinist of our time playing in the DC Metro Station and hardly anyone even blinks.
Joshua Bell played six virtuosic pieces over 43 minutes. There was no applause. No awe-struck crowd. Almost 1100 people walked by. Of those, seven stopped to listen for a bit. 27 tossed change into his case, for a grand total of $32. As Bell shared, “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually…ignoring me…At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgement, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.”
One woman recognized Joshua Bell. She stopped to watch towards the end of his performance. As she shared, “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
How could this have happened? How is it that people pay hundreds of dollars to see Joshua Bell perform on stage and can’t even spend a minute watching him in the Metro station?
Weingarten suggests that Americans are just too busy. We are so focused on our next appointment, on our projects and tasks, that we are oblivious to the world around us. He points out that during the experiment, every time a child passed Joshua Bell, they would turn around and try to stop and watch him. And every time, without fail, their parent or guardian would urge them along. For Weingarten, the take away is simple. We need to indulge our child-like fascination with the world. We need to slow down at least enough that we can appreciate the beauty around us, even for a moment.
But there is another possibility. Context matters. The Washington Post chose to do this experiment in the DC Metro. It’s a place where people expect to deal with traffic and delays, a place which is strictly functional—a way to get from one point to another. Additionally, the metro is where homeless people put out cans asking for money and amateurs perform classical music to make some extra cash. We tend to anticipate our experiences in the Metro. We are sure that our experiences will conform with our expectations. Is it possible those 1100 people were so convinced that nothing of quality could happen in the metro that they didn’t even open their ears to see?
How often do we do this?
We receive a book about a politically charged topic from a friend who disagrees with our political perspective. We think, a book that they recommend is clearly a book I will not like. We discard the book without reading it. Who knows, that might have been the book that would have changed our lives.
We see artwork being sold on the street and walk right by, convinced that it cannot possibly be of value. Anything sold on the street must not be worth our time.
We see a sanitation worker or a security guard and look right past them. We infer that their uniform means that they have nothing to offer us. We ignore them. We don’t think that they might be a Joshua Bell playing away in our midst.
Generations ago, a leader was selected because he could see the extraordinary within ordinary moments. Our rabbis teach that the burning bush had been there since the beginning of time. So many people had just walked on by, oblivious to the tiny miracle at their feet. They explain that what made Moshe special was that in the midst of searching for a lost lamb, in the midst of his busyness, his eyes were open to possibility.
Moshe is not the only one who can do this. We each have the capacity to look up, to see the world around us with new eyes. That’s why our parsha this week is literally called “re’eh” “see!” The Torah knew that there would be a day when we’d walk right by a Joshua Bell, a burning bush, and never know what we had missed. God says “see—literally look right in front of you—I am placing before you a blessing and a curse.” You would expect God to say something like: “understand that you have the capacity for blessing or curse” or “know that good behavior will be rewarded.” God asks us to see because God knows that so much in life depends on whether or not we open our eyes.
When I graduated high school and was moving to college, my Rebbe gave me an alarm clock. It was one of those clocks that you could record a voice memo and use that voice memo as an alarm. And so every morning, I woke up to the sound of my Rebbe’s voice saying, “Aliza, God has many blessings for you. Keep your heart open to receive them.”
Every day we are surrounded by burning bushes, by Joshua Bells playing in the metro station, by tiny miracles waiting to be discovered. If we look around us and see only the world we can understand, a world of limited possibilities, a world where we know that everything is not up to par, then we are living in a curse. But, if we can look around us and see possibility, if we can open our hearts to wonder and curiosity, then the world will be our kosher oyster; a space of blessings beyond our wildest imagination.
On this Shabbos morning, God has many blessings for you. Will you keep your heart open to receive them?