Last month, the eminent and brilliant neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away from cancer at the age of 82. Sacks is famous for popularizing and relating neurological phenomena, disorders, and curiosities to a mass-audience through books like ‘The Man who mistook his wife for a hat’ and ‘Musicophilia’. I was made aware of this story on the NPR program ‘Radiolab’.
Dr. Sacks tells a story in ‘Musicophilia’ about a man named Clive Wearing, an English musician and choir director who in March 1985 was struck with encephalitis of the brain, which resulted in the most severe case of amnesia ever recorded. After his illness, Clive had no ability at all to remember. Anything. Each moment in his life is, to Clive, the experience of waking up- like there was nothing before. The moment lasts for 15 or 30 seconds, and then it repeats. Again, and again, and again. That moment, the moment of first awakening, was constantly astonishing, like being born over and over again. Like being aware, for the very first time.
This lack of memory was also very disturbing. Beginning in 1985, Clive questions his very own existence. He likens his life without memory to death, or a night that goes on and on, but with no dreams.
There are, however, two remarkable exceptions to this total absence of memory in Clive.
The two things that persist are; love and music. He cannot recall his wife’s name, any facts of their life together, anything they’ve ever done. He cannot describe what she looks like if not looking directly at her. But he can remember his love for her. His feeling, his experience, his memory of love; is so powerful, it literally transcends memory. It may even possibly transcend existence, in the sense that Clive doubts whether he has ever existed or even is currently in existence. But he knows he loves his wife: when he sees her visiting him at the hospital, he embraces with the enthusiasm and passion of a man loving for the first time.
Dr. Sacks theorized that perhaps ‘memories of pain and joy are primordial’; that the brain may contain a deep repository that Dr. Sacks called ‘a sub-cortical safe vault’. Clive stored two things there. Love, and music. Clive could remember how to read music, sing hymns he had learned in life before his illness; Clive was a conductor in his life before his illness, and when given a piece of sheet music and placed in front of his old choir members, he could even conduct them perfectly.
Music is seemingly so deep in our psyches; it touches so place so deep and emotional, that it, like love, persists even if our entire memory was to be obliterated. It is as if love and music were seated in the same place in the brain as breathing, or was as autonomic as the beating of the heart.
A remarkable side note to this story, and my point of entry as a rabbi at this Rosh Hashanah 5776: Clive’s favorite piece of choral music was by renaissance composer Orlandus Lassus, and is entitled Musica Dei Donum Optimi; Music, gift of God, most high. I’ll come back to that.
A problem of the human condition is that we are a constantly alive, and yet often only mildly aware of that fact. Often, our days are consumed with the mundane; this errand, that task, these responsibilities. There are lots of things to do, and even more things to worry about doing; and worrying about things is really the chief occupation of the Jewish people.
The opportunity to step back and take in the majesty of things around us: the beauty of nature, the flavor of a food, the sound of water spilling over a creek, is an opportunity we don’t often take. Or, as the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘Small is the world that most of us pay attention to, and limited is our concern.’ It is, however, one of the lessons of Judaism, and also, the message of the Jewish holidays, including principally this holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
It would be easy, and cheap, for me to give you a carpe diem - Seize the day sermon - right now. To tell you to put down your smartphone, go out to see some jazz music, stop and smell the roses, through caution to the wind, skip work and go on a road trip, yada-yada-yada. But that’s ridiculous. If Alfred Hitchcock is right when he says ‘"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out," then the opposite is also true: Life is filled with dull bits, interspersed with brief, sensational, dramatic moments. Somebody’s got to clean the underside of the coffeemaker, to go to the office, to pick up the dry cleaning.
Instead, I want to explore two things: the first, to define what it is to call something awesome, or sublime,
how that radical amazement with the world, BOTH in the dramatic moments AND in the mundane bits, elevates and connects us with God.
First, what is it to live in what Heschel calls ‘radical amazement’? It is to return to our most childlike state, the feeling you had when you first beheld something wonderful for the first time. Brushing something soft against your face for the first time. Tasting chocolate for the first time. The opening bar of a remarkable piece of music. Recalling what it was like to see your favorite movie the very first time, before you knew how much you would come to love those images, and how much you would identify with those characters.
It is to stand before something, whether natural or human-made, whether incredibly complex like an iphone, or as simple as a feather on the breeze, whether something you’ve never experienced before, or something you’ve experienced a thousand times before, and to approach it with a sense of newness and wonder.
Rabbi Heschel explained how hard this can be for us moderns. He wrote ‘modern man fell into the trap of believing that everything can be explained, that reality is a simple affair which has only to be organized in order to be mastered.’
Ancient peoples lived in a world that they hardly understood, a world where lightning or volcanoes or healing herbs or the fermentation of beer were all understood as miracles, or magic. We today laugh at these pre-modern simpletons who would stand amazed by us if we were to do the simple task of striking a match or turning on a television for them.
And yet, our lack of ability to stand amazed, at anything, has robbed from us something deeply human about our experience. A magnet can be simply explained as the act of oppositely charged electrons attracting one to another. And it is also a miracle. And it is also a thing in which we can be tremendously curious about. To live in radical amazement and extreme awe is to not only answer the question of a child with your own knowledge on the subject, but to be struck by the question itself, and to become compelled to become more childlike ourselves; more willing to consider that maybe the ancients were right: maybe digital communications and satellite technology, while having a rational explanation, is also magical.
Or, another way to put it, is the words of a song from the Lego Movie that my son loves to sing all day long: ‘Everything is Awesome’. To call everything awesome is to ascribe wonder and magic and goodness to the mundane, and to elevate all moments of human experience and call them awesome.
In Hebrew the word for sublime is נעלה - and can also mean exalted, or elevated. The word for awesome you all know: נורא, as in Yamim Noraim; the days of awe. We usually use the term ‘high holy days’ for this season, which is fitting, but only sort of. What makes these days holy is our ability to elevate them above the rest of the year. What makes them traditionally come to be called the days of awe is that they remind us of God’s power in determining our fate in the coming year 5776. They are awesome because God is awesome. But these days of awesomeness are also a reminder to us to regard the world with extreme awe, each and every day. They are awesome because they they remind us to see the whole world as awesome.
Immanuel Kant defined the word sublime as “that in comparison with which all else is small.” These days become awesome because we reorient the universe on this day to become magnified and elevated.
Second, Judaism teaches us that the experience of a thing as elevated, as sublime, as awesome, is the first-hand experience of God. Clive’s ability to tap into his love for his wife, his miraculous capability of singing hymns that should be entirely lost in a logical sense, that is the immediate encounter with God.
We see this kind of radical awakening in two seminal Jewish texts, and one of them is, not coincidentally, the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.
The first text is the mystical story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob is sent by his father Isaac to find a wife from the daughters of Laban, Rachel and Leah. On the way, Jacob finds an unassuming pile of rocks to lay his head, and has a dream in angels ascend and descend a ladder. God speaks to Jacob in this dream, and Jacob exclaims “ אכן יש ה׳ במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי “ - Surely God was in this place, and I did not know.
Now it could be, that this place ,and this time, was truly special. The Torah uses the words ‘ויפגע במקום ‘ - And Jacob happened upon the place. The Torah doesn’t like to waste words, so it might be significant that the Torah tells us that Jacob comes upon this place, במקום, to lie down.
But it could also be that the place and time are not special, not auspicious, in any way. That the event makes the moment and the place special. Jacob did not come to a beautiful waterfall, or an smoking mountain, or a gorgeous tree, or a burning bush: all places of inherent wonder and mystery. This place is specifically surprising to Jacob because it was so ordinary. In fact, the Torah goes out of it’s way to tell us that the only thing here is a an otherwise unremarkable pile of rocks. ‘God was in this place’; or better yet, since the Hebrew say ’ יש’ - ‘there is’ - maybe it should be ‘God IS in the place’ . In this understanding, this place, and EVERY place, are not special: each and every place is filled with God, right now, and can therefore be a place to have radical amazement. Every moment is miraculous if we let it be. We just need to open our eyes.
The second text from the Torah is also the text the rabbis selected to be read each year at Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s wife Sarah conceives and bears a child at the age of 99 years old. Previously, having not believed she was likely to bear Abraham an heir, she had her maidservant Hagar bear Abraham a child, named Ishmael. Shortly after Sarah gives birth to her child Isaac, Sarah orders that Abraham cast both mother and child out into the wilderness. Abraham is distressed, but God affirms the decision is right, and Hagar and Ishmael are cast out.
Hagar is overcome with grief, and when she runs out of water, she leaves Ishmael under a bush, and walks off into the distance and cried. The Torah then tells us that God appeared to both of them, and said this - ויפקח אלוקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים - Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.
It says God ‘opened her eyes and she she saw’ - not that God made a well magically appear, but rather that God made Hagar aware of the existence of something that would save her life that was already there. It seems like a miracle, but in reality, it was there all along, and Hagar only needed to be made aware of it.
The difference between a moment and an awesome moment, between thirst and wellspring, is not external, but internal. The moment is the same, it is rather our perception of the moment that changes. The difference between approach a moment as a mundanity and approaching it with reverence and holiness is something we call God. Because that thing that is bigger than us, that is majestic, is present in everything; from the remarkable act of a whale breeching right in front of us, to the ordinary event of a morning sip of coffee. God is present in that moment, if only we take the time to realize it.
The story of our severe amnesiac, Clive, is proof that things we think of as special, but kind of a ‘normal special’, like music, or love, can be seen through other eyes as truly transcendent, as connecting, as life-giving. Think of that next time you turn on the radio, or kiss a loved one: it’s no small thing. God was in that moment. It truly was Musica Dei Donum Optimi, Music, gift of God on high.
I’ll conclude with words from the liturgy; in our prayers at these Yamim Noraim, we add the memorable prayer of Unetanah Tokef - asking God what will become of us in the coming year. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall move on and how many be created? Who shall live and who shall die?”
We can certainly understand these words literally, as in each year new life will be born and others who are alive will end their journey amongst us in this world. But we can also understand this in the context of awe. When Pharoah asks Jacob ‘How old are you?’ towards the later years of an existence filled with travail and loss, and lots of wandering, Jacob answers, ‘few have been the years of my life’. Living can be defined not just as a state of existence as a living breathing being, but as being truly alive. The statement ‘who shall live and who shall die’ is about living with radical amazement and extreme awe of the world around us at every moment. To take it in and to appreciate it on a higher order. In this reading we say mi yichyeh u mi yamut - who will go through each moment as if dead, and who will go through each moment as if alive. Or, as Heschel put it, ‘Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.’ If so, to be aware of the wonder is to do a great mitzvah each and every moment.
That is my blessing for us in 5776; that we go forth living; aware of each moment. That we wake up with the sound of the shofar with new purpose and enthusiasm. That we appreciate everything in our world as a miracle infused with divine properties, as we say in our daily prayers each morning; ובטובו מחדש בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית , in your goodness you make anew each day and moment like a brand new creation. May this year be a year of awe-inspiring newness for us, just like every year.