I write this essay on the afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashanah is the day that God scrutinizes and judges all our deeds. Sometimes, God sends you reminders of where you stand and what He wants from you.
Two days ago, my brother emailed me a short video. It told a story about world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, who after being afflicted with polio as a child became wheelchair-bound. One evening during a concert when he was only a few bars into a piece, there was a loud snap. A string on his violin broke. Instead of seeking out another violin, he simply closed his eyes and continued to play with his signature passion, power and mastery. The audience was astounded by the beauty of his performance, produced under the constraint of the missing string. After a standing ovation, he was called upon to say a few words. He said simply: “Our job is to make music with what remains.”
Yesterday, my son-in-law called me on the phone from Israel wanting to share a thought about Rosh Hashanah. He made reference to the story of Ishmael dying of thirst in the desert (this section is read from the Torah on the first day of the holiday). His mother prays for them to find water, and an angel responds: “Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the youth in his present state.” What is that phrase “present state” supposed to mean? To explain it, Rashi refers to a midrash that says that the angels pleaded with God not to save Ishmael because his descendants would persecute Jews. God responded that He would judge Ishmael only according to his present deeds and not based on the future.
My son-in-law went on to say that this story contains an important lesson about Rosh Hashanah. It is almost a universal experience that in the very midst of repentance and new resolutions, we hear that voice at the back of our minds: “Sure, you sound so sincere, in the synagogue, praying with the congregation, with all your regret and commitment to change. But do you really think that you are going to keep up all these pristine resolutions? How long will it take for the full stresses of life to descend on you again, and you just won’t have the follow-through and the commitment that you feel today?”
These are words from the yetzer hara, the “evil impulse” within us, trying to distract us from repentance and self-improvement. The truth is, just as God judged Ishmael in his present state, so does God judge us in this manner on Rosh Hashanah. The Rambam says that true teshuvah (“repentance”) has occurred when God himself will testify concerning a person that he will no longer return to his sin. Later commentators interpreted this statement as such: God’s “testifying” occurs not in regard to the person’s actions after Rosh Hashanah, but to the person in his present state.
God demands that we scrutinize our deeds and sincerely seek repentance during the Days of Awe (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), but He knows that He cannot expect us to be perfect in keeping our resolutions. He’s not even looking at the future when He judges us. He scrutinizes our hearts. He asks the simple question: Given the present sincerity of this person, would he be expected to sin again? If the commitment to change, in that moment, is deep, intense and pure, then this is enough for God. Judged on the basis of his present state, God testifies that the person will not sin again.
After hearing these words of inspiration, I was driving home from work and heard a news story on the radio. It was about a woman who was a tremendously talented singer and a musician. In college, after having developed her considerable musical skill, she became deaf. Her dreams of becoming a choral director were dashed, and she plunged into a deep depression. Then she discovered that even though she could not hear, she had maintained the ability to carry a tune beautifully, and by reading music could learn and sing new songs. After this revelation, she has proceeded to have hundreds of concerts. She performs in bare feet so she can feel the beat of the instruments and keep time to the music. While being interviewed, she said that many people don’t believe that she is deaf. “We created an idea of how people are supposed to look when they are broken, and so, when you don’t fit that imaginary mold, it’s a trick or you are a liar,” she said.
At the end of the story, she mentioned a song she wrote titled “Try.” As she explained, “after I lost my hearing, I gave up, but I want to do more with my life than just give up. … Not that I’m hiding my disability or whatever you would call it. I don’t find it really to be a disability; it’s just that I do things differently, and I want people to appreciate my music for what it is and not a story. I’m not a story. I’m a person and my passion is music, and I want your passion to be my music, so judge me on my music.”
“Judge me on my music.”
During these Days of Awe, let us ask God to judge us on our music — the song in our hearts, played in the present moment. The meaning of that music is not based on our disabilities, deficiencies or prior mistakes. It doesn’t even depend on what we may do in the future. All that God wants is the heart. And when deeds are done from a place of deep sincerity, commitment, love and passion, then miracles can occur. We can change; we can become renewed. We may be tempted to focus on what has been lost, and indeed, much has: millions of our Jewish brethren and our own sense of confidence that we can improve the world or ourselves.
But Perlman was right: “Our job is to make music with what remains.” All we need to do is hope and try. God will do the rest.
This essay appears in “Written Upon Our Souls” by Michael Milgraum. He is a licensed clinical psychologist, former attorney and author who has a private practice in Kensington, Md.