The Potential of an Empty Ark
June 3, 2017 — 9 Sivan 5777
In 1839, Giuseppe Verdi was leading a brilliant life. He was young, talented, and famous. His first opera, Oberto, premiered at La Scala in Milan on November 17th and received such rave reviews that the impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, commissioned another three operas and went on to stage Oberto another 13 times. A major Milanese publisher bought the rights for $400—a crazy sum in 1839—and began selling piano and vocal scores. Articles about the opera and its composer appeared in Paris and Leipzig; all over Europe. Everyone waited expectantly to see what Verdi would write next, sure that his next work would be an even greater success.
But when Verdi’s second opera, Un Giorno Di Regno, premiered at La Scala in 1840, it was a total flop. Singers were hissed and booed until they left the stage; critics tore the work to shreds in papers across Europe. Verdi was so depressed about the opera’s reception that he famously swore never to compose again.
To be clear, Un Giorno Di Regno is not a bad opera. It’s actually quite charming. When it’s staged these days, people talk about Verdi’s early style and the opera’s quirks. No one today would dream of booing it off the stage. But in 1840, the opera met its disastrous end mostly because the music didn’t match up to people’s expectations. After Verdi’s success with Oberto, the public had a particular vision for what his second opera would sound like. And when Verdi didn’t deliver that vision, they became angry.
We may not have faced an angry mob of opera goers, but most of us have had Verdi moments. Moments that we’ve imagined unfolding a certain way, only to find ourselves disappointed.
What do we do when reality doesn’t meet our expectations?
Years ago, I stood on a very different bimah. It was the day of my bat mitzvah, and I could hardly wait to be called to the Torah for the first time. The congregation stood facing the ark.
“Baruch shenatan, Torah, Torah l’amo Israel bikdushato.” The doors to the ark swung open, silk curtains slid back to reveal—nothing. A gasp travelled through the room. Nervous whispers. Where’s the Torah? What will we do?
You see, I grew up in Denver, Colorado, but we belonged to the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder—a community which was about 50 miles from my house. For my bat mitzvah, the community offered to come to us. We rented a special space and made arrangements for different friends to bring different ritual items. Someone brought the ark, someone brought the books, and someone forgot the Torah. Oops!
It could have been a Verdi moment. Here I got all dressed up, ready to go on my very first grown up date with Torah and Jewish tradition. And standing there in my fancy clothes, with my whole family watching, I opened the door to see that Torah had stood me up. No date. No idealized spiritual encounter. Just an empty ark.
But after that initial gasp of surprise and the whispers, the whole room burst into laughter. We laughed and laughed and laughed, and eventually someone found a blue practice chumash which we paraded around the sanctuary as if it were a sacred Torah.
My bat mitzvah happened without an official, written Torah. But it happened because we made do with the Torah we had on hand—the Torah of the unexpected, the blue practice chumash that we used as option B.
That happens for us all the time. We don’t always get the things we’ve dreamed about.
We see ourselves graduating from school and landing the dream job. But when we graduate, we apply for job after job and can’t find work. An empty ark.
We land the dream job and work through the years. Just a few years away from retirement, the markets crash and we lose not only our job, but also our savings. An empty ark.
We see ourselves getting married, walking hand in hand through the years, growing old together. But then widowhood happens. Two becomes one. An empty home. An empty ark.
Life is full of empty arks.
What do we do then?
In 1840, Verdi quit. When the world didn’t receive him as he imagined, he became so depressed that he couldn’t continue. But Merelli, the impresario at La Scala, was not ready to give up on him. He sent him a libretto. And when Verdi sent it back with the clear communication that he was no longer composing, Merelli refused to take no for an answer. Some say he followed Verdi around, others that he just kept sending the same libretto back again and again. Finally, Verdi got tired of trying to send the libretto back. He threw it on the table with, as he describes it, an “almost violent gesture.”
But then he noticed something. As he put it, “in falling, it had opened of itself; without my realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: ‘Va pensiero, sull’ ali dorate’ ” Go thought, on wings of Gold.
Merelli had sent him Nabucco, the story of the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple. The story of a people, the Israelite people, who lost everything that was dear to them, and somehow emerged filled with hope and the conviction to persevere. The story of a people who re-wrote their story, their traditions, their trajectory. The more time Verdi spent with this text of hope and renewal, the more he began to believe in himself and in his own potential for growth.
Verdi began writing again. In 1842, he finished his third opera, Nabucco, and it was a smashing success. He was lauded as one of the most brilliant composers of all time. He went on to write another 22 operas. Today, if you know anything about Verdi, you know about his musical genius and professional success. Before today, you may not have heard of his almost complete failure.
Though we are not famous opera composers, we can relate to Verdi’s story on a deep level. Our ancestors were booed off of their home stage. The future they had imagined—living in the Holy Land and serving God in the Temple—was not to be. The Temple was destroyed. Our ancestors were exiled.
The story could have ended there. But our ancestors kept going and began writing again. They created the spiritual technology which sustains us today. They wrote the Mishna, the Talmud, the legal texts which guide our practice. They reimagined rituals so that we could be Jewish in Diaspora. Today, the Judaism that we know is a response to a Torah that disappeared. Our Judaism is the answer to an empty ark.
When we recite Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, we sing together HaZorim b’dima, b’Rina Yiktzoru. Those who sow with tears shall reap with joy. We sing this together, in a joyful and lilting tune as a reminder. Life may fill occasionally with tears; the curtains may rise on a scene we did not expect. But when we find ourselves staring at an empty ark, we have an important choice. We can stop and mourn what should have been. Or we can stare into that empty ark, and find the Torah that is. When we can do that, we find an even deeper joy.