Grace Notes

In Vasily Grossman’s vast, magisterial novel of World War II, “Life and Fate,” he pauses for a moment to speak of the power of music:

“People in camps, people in prisons, people who have escaped from prison, people going to their deaths, know the extraordinary power of music. No one else can experience music in quite the same way. What music resurrects in the soul of a man about to die is neither hope nor thought, but simply the blind, heart-breaking miracle of life itself.”

We can imagine the slaves, recently escaped form the prison of Egypt, at the sea. The biblical song of the sea expresses in an ancient idiom what the novelist tells us. Music expands the world, opens the sky, exists in defiance of confinement or restriction or the narrowness that often holds the human spirit in check. The orchestra of Auschwitz stood in complete opposition to the hellish world that surrounded it. For a moment as the notes soared, the musician’s souls felt free.

Grossman’s novel was repressed by the Soviet Union in his lifetime, but after he is gone we can hear his noble spirit’s song. He expresses the majesty bequeathed by music makers throughout the ages — “the blind, heart-breaking miracle of life itself.”

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.