The packed room had been silent for a few minutes, the air thick with anticipation. All eyes were on the stage at the front of the dimly lit room, where the beloved “dancing Rabbi”, Reb Shlomo Carlebach zt”l, was about to begin a long-awaited concert. But something clearly wasn’t right. Reb Shlomo was bent over his guitar, studying it with a look of consternation and turning the pegs this way and that. As he strummed a few chords, it became clear to the audience that his guitar was hopelessly out of tune. Try as he may, he simply couldn’t get it to sound right! Many minutes went by as he tried using a few different methods to tune his instrument, to no avail. While the tone that emerged was pleasant enough, it was far from the sound Reb Shlomo desired. Suddenly, a voice rang out from the back of the room. “Reb Shlomo, I play guitar too! Let me give it a shot!” Before anyone knew it, a wiry young man bounded up onto the stage, excited to be able to use his expertise to help the celebrated performer. However, as the moments passed, it became clear to all that he was only making matter worse. Embarrassed, he left the stage, muttering apologies.
The audience began to grow restless. “Who cares if the guitar is perfectly in tune or not?” they whispered. “We came to hear Reb Shlomo sing and share his sweet words of Torah!” Still, it seemed as if the beloved composer was not willing to begin the concert until his guitar was perfectly tuned. Reb Shlomo plucked each string, listening intently, trying to find its proper tone in the scale, but for one reason or another, he simply couldn’t seem to get it right.
And then, just like that, he stopped.
Just like that he sat up straight, beamed at the audience, and began his famous “Barcheinu Avinu”. The delighted crowd quickly caught on and began swaying to the music and singing along. Soon the room was transformed, lifted on the mighty wings of love and prayer. Sadness, anger, and hate were nullified by the brilliant rays of Jewish harmony as the voices and souls joined in unison, praising their Father in heaven as one. The out-of-tune guitar was forgotten almost immediately.
After a few passionate rounds of “Barcheinu Avinu”, Reb Shlomo stopped the song and cleared his throat. “My darling friends”, he began, “I want you to know the most awesome, awesome thing. You know, before I began to sing, my guitar was mamash out of tune. I tried this, I tried that, but nothing helped. It was really a bad scene! And then, after some time passed, I decided to begin the concert. Do you know why I suddenly began the concert even though my guitar didn’t yet sound right? Open your hearts and listen to the deepest depths – it is so important to remember. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if your guitar is a little off key. So what? It doesn’t matter! You just have to play! Because it is mamash the saddest thing in the world, but some people spend their whole lives tuning, and they never get to play. ”
Although I heard this story years ago, the punchline still gives me the shivers.
Some people spend their whole lives tuning, and they never get to play.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe zy”a believed that every Jew has the ability to teach something to the world, regardless of how little he or she may know. “If you know Aleph, teach Aleph” he would say. “If you know Beis, teach Beis“.
Oftentimes, we sell ourselves short. Walking into shul and seeing the walls lined with bookshelves carrying hundreds of seforim, many of which we never heard or whose titles we can’t even pronounce, we feel as if we are not in a position to teach anything to anyone. When we think of sharing the little Torah we have acquired, we panic. “Perhaps when I finish this masechta“, “Another semicha“, “Another ten years in learning.” We feel so inadequate, so incapable of inspiring another Jew. But these feelings are simply incorrect.
When Chazal teach that each Jewish soul is rooted in one of the Torah’s 600,000 letters, they are telling us that each of us has the ability to attain our own unique insight into the Torah – an insight which the rest of the Jewish nation is waiting for them to share.
Listen to the holy words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
“Every Jew contains a precious point which his friend lacks… he must use this aspect in which he is better off than his friend to shine into him and inspire him.” (Likutei Moharan 34:4)
In another place, he writes:
“And everybody has the ability to do this, to establish students. For when two people speak together in matters of yiras Shamayim, and one’s words shine into his friend, his friend is then considered to be in the aspect of “student” toward him. Everybody must be careful to try to busy himself with this…” (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 7:4)
“Everybody has the ability to do this” – even me, even you. We all have an obligation to uncover our unique point of holy insight and share it with the world, using our perspective to inspire others and illuminate their journey along the narrow bridge of life. For this, there is no requirement of experience, knowledge, or pedigree. All that is needed to begin is own soul and the Torah teachings she pours forth.
While it is important to seek greater levels of understanding and to expand our knowledge, life is simply too short to wait until we feel like we are qualified to lift up other Jews with words of Torah, encouragement, or guidance. In fact, chances are that if this is what we are waiting for, we won’t ever get there. There will always be another area of Torah to master, always more clarity to be had into Hashem’s dream for His holy nation. Life circumstances are bound to arise which limit our ability to devote as much time to Torah study as we would like. And as the minutes turn into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, our light remains sadly shut away in a box of self-doubt, despite our having been so perfectly qualified to share it all along.
One of the primary messages of Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l, and a part of why his growing influence extends across the entire spectrum of Jewry, is that every Jew is special, every Jew is intrinsically holy, and every Jew has a unique message of light that only he or she can bring to the world. Despite his vast and deep understanding of the Talmudic, Halachic, and Chassidic literature, Reb Shlomo would frequently interrupt his teaching sessions to ask for input from his students, many of whom who knew little to nothing about Judaism. And it wasn’t simply to make them feel good. Reb Shlomo believed with all of his heart (and, judging by the size of his heart, that is a LOT of belief) that everyone had something to teach him, that the precious points within every Jew were yearning to be released, to join hands and fill the expanse of existence with the gentle illumination of spiritual beauty.
Today, on Reb Shlomo’s yartzeit, let us try to strengthen this self-belief. Let us try to discover the “aleph-beis” of our unique insight into life and yiddishkeit hidden deep within and allow it to rise up and overflow into the lives of those with whom we are privileged to share this great journey. Time carries on its monotonous march, and the world waits for our contribution.
“Some people spend their whole lives tuning, and they never get to play.”