The value of going “unplugged” was introduced shortly after MTV hit the airwaves. “MTV Unplugged” was supposed to last thirteen episodes when it debuted in November of 1989. It eventually topped a hundred shows, with a third of them released as soundtrack albums. Paul McCartney took the concept mainstream when he released his best-selling “Unplugged (The Official Bootleg),” recorded on the show in 1991. Clearly, fans love seeing the inner workings of music-making, without the distractions of producers, walls of vocals, electric guitars and drum loops — real musicians making real music in real time, without a net.
The collection of groundbreaking unplugged shows is now easily accessible, thanks to YouTube. Some of my favorites are those where one can get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of how the songs might have been created. As much as I love playing with my band, there is something to be said for those piano/vocal only shows where intense intimacy can be established. Without the wall of sound, the crowd relaxes like they are in a living room, focusing on the messages with open hearts. Instead of performing to passive listeners, the unplugged realm creates a “playing with” the audience, like a concerto, with the artist as soloist and the audience as orchestra.
Occasionally, sublime musical moments occur after my “official” concerts. After the crowd clears out, local musician friends gather on the stage to jam, or we have an after-party at a nearby home. In both instances, no electricity is required. At CAJE (Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Education), the annual conference of Jewish educators for which I perform each year, I typically lead a sing-along on the last night. Insomniac attendees pack a room laden with humidity and humanity and sing for three hours straight– one piano, one microphone, six hundred lead vocalists and no breaks! We segue from Israeli and Jewish camp songs to the best of R&B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Top 40 and a healthy smattering of Beatles. It’s an exhilarating experience for everyone.
Going unplugged is not a new concept to the Jewish people. We have been “unplugging” once a week for millennia. We call it Shabbat. Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am famously stated, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Without the distraction of our phones, computers and other “personality amplifiers,” we reconnect with who we are and our place in the universe. The rest of the week, as we go about the business of our lives, God allows us to feel like we are “partners” in shaping the world. But on Shabbat, the illusion stops and we see the world through Godly eyes. We leave behind the often cacophonous symphony of our lives and are left with simple song.
Unplugging is such an integral aspect of the Sabbath that it’s ironic how many synagogues strive to increase membership by offering concert-style worship on Friday nights. Modern churches have successfully raised the spiritual bar by employing masterful ensembles to propel the prayers. But for the Jewish People, there is something to be said for sweet simplicity, at least on Shabbat. Davening in blissful; unamplified a cappella allows us to hear ourselves think, while simultaneously connecting with the greater whole. When the auspicious time of candle lighting hits on Friday afternoon, I’ll take my Shabbat with shalom.
In my neighborhood, “Shabbat Shalom” is the operative greeting for the thousands of Jews walking the streets. These words mean more than “have a peaceful Sabbath.” They communicate a wish that everyone shares our blissful Shabbas state of mind. For twenty-five hours we bask in a state of oneness with creation, and when it’s time to plug back in on Saturday night, we are grounded, connected and ready for the returning onslaught of our day-to-day.
Shabbat takes some effort to get used to. Initially, one is consumed by the list of forbidden actions. But after a while, it’s as natural as breathing. God is described by the prophets as communicating in a “still, small voice.” When “plugged in,” it’s impossible to hear it. God speaks to us in many voices and we are masters of methods to ignore them. And these days, we have more ways than ever to banish the precious commodity of silence. On Shabbat, we re-enter the quiet conversation and restore our relationship; shepherding our fragile faith into the realm of commitment, making our bitachon (trust in God) tangible. Those who take on Sabbath observance make sacrifices that may seem daunting, but pale in comparison with the eternal rewards of true rest.
The best way to get into Shabbat is to get into Shabbat. Find friends who celebrate a full Sabbath and jump in. Start with Friday night dinner, then add services, then try a Saturday lunch and eventually, take the plunge and stay overnight in a nearby ‘hood. Our sages tell us that we truly acquire a mitzvah when we do it three times in a row. Soon you will have attempted the full Shabbat lockdown three weeks in a row and you will find that you LOVE it. Going unplugged is our ultimate birthright.