The Harpischord and the Piano


I grew up in New York, not far from Jones Beach. And, one of my favorite things to do when I was a child was go to the beach and collect shells. At some point, someone told me that if you hold up the shell to your ear, you can hear the sound of the ocean. And, I always wondered: how can something so big fit into something so small?

Our Tradition tells us a beautiful story to answer that question. The Torah says that at the dawn of Creation everything was submerged in water. And, God began to create by dividing things: first light from darkness, then water from sky, and then land from water.

But, the rabbis said, the waters didn’t like that. The waters didn’t want to accept their boundaries. And, they resisted. And, to this day, they are still resisting with all of their might. And, that’s why when we go the beach, we see the ocean tide rushing towards the shore with great force, only to pull back at the last minute. And, the Rabbis say, this is Leviathan, the great sea monster, tugging at his leash. And, if it weren’t for the fact that God is holding on to the leash, the whole world would be submerged in an instant.

So, we have this intriguing paradox. Without the boundary that we call the shore, there would be no ocean. The ocean gets its very identity from the fact that it has a limit. On the other hand, the beauty and power of the ocean, what makes it the ocean is that it is continually pushing against the boundary with all of its might.

And, this creative tension is reflected in the name of today’s parasha. So, I’d like us all now to turn to our study sheets for a brief Hebrew language lesson. The name of today’s parasha is Tazria-Metzora. Tazria comes from the root zara/zayin-resh-ayin. It means to grow, to sprout, like a seed grows. It means to come to life.  Metzora comes from the word tzara/tzadi-resh-ayin, which means having leprosy. What is leprosy? It is unchecked growth. It is growth out of control. In Hebrew, zayin and tzadi often interchange. So, the same word can mean life force in a good way and it can also mean life force unrestrained, which is scary and destructive.

And, that same tension is found in at least two other places in the Hebrew language. The word parah/pay-resh-hay means to be fruitful and multiply, an explosion of life force. And, at the same time, the word for evil in Hebrew is puranut, from para/pay-resh-ayin. Puranut is chaos, a world in which all moral boundaries have been crossed. So again, evil and destruction is defined as life force out of control—too much of a good thing, or you could say ‘the dark side of the force.’

And, finally, the word for creating is yatzar/yud—tzadi—resh. And, this word contains the letters tzadi-resh, which means narrow. And, tzara in Hebrew means ‘sorrow’. Sorrow comes from feeling your life has been too narrowed.  And, the word for Egypt in Hebrew is ‘mitzrayim’ which contains the word ‘tzar’.  And, to be in mitzrayim is to be in slavery.

So, to create life, you need a boundary. But, if you draw the boundary too narrowly, you’re in slavery! The word bracha/blessing comes from an ancient word meaning a chick that is about to burst out of its shell. So, bursting through boundaries is a blessing. That’s how we come to life. And, at the same time, a world without boundaries, a world of unchecked life force, is a world of chaos and evil.

So, what do we do? How do we negotiate this tension? I came across an interesting model. I’m listening to a series of lectures on Beethoven by Professor Robert Greenberg, on a series of CD’s put out by The Teaching Company. Greenberg says that Beethoven’s career began at the time when musicians were transition from the harpsichord to this brand new instrument called the piano.  A piano sounds a lot like a harpsichord, but with a harpsichord you can’t really vary the loudness of a note. But, with a piano you can vary it a lot.  So, you can play much more dynamic and interesting music on a piano than you can on a harpsichord.

The problem was that it took a while for composers to figure that out. So for several decades, composers were still writing harpsichord music for the piano. They simply had no idea what this instrument could do. So, the piano was underachieving until Beethoven came along. And, when Beethoven came along, he said: “Oh, my God, look at the sounds I can get out of this instrument. This is fantastic!” And, the result was, Beethoven created a sound no one had ever heard before. It was so much more alive. It was so much more dynamic!  And, it’s all because he pushed the boundaries of his instrument to the limit.

I see an analogy to American history. In 1776, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton invented the piano which we call American democracy. But, it took 150 years for people to realize what this instrument could do. So, for a long time, composers were still writing harpsichord music for this piano.

That’s why we still had slavery and then segregation. We didn’t have equality for women or marriage equality. We didn’t have a society of diverse immigrants. We didn’t have the dynamic, multi-ethnic culture that we have today. But, we have all that today because our ancestors continually pushed the boundaries of our instrument, seeing what it could really do.

And, that’s why today, we finally have our American composers writing piano music for the piano. That’s why I think the play Hamilton has been so wildly successful. Hamilton isn’t about erasing all boundaries. It embraces a distinctive American history and culture. It celebrates a distinctly American hero. But, it also tests the boundaries of our instrument. It says, ‘hey, this instrument can also play rap. This country contains heroes who don’t look anything like Alexander Hamilton.”

Now, there are those who say—but why can’t we just play the harpsichord music that was written for the piano 200 years ago? And, the answer is—we could. But that would be a waste of a really great instrument. That would be like the ocean just moving forward two inches, instead of rushing towards the shore as far as it can go with great force.

And, I think that is the meaning of why we are here today celebrating Aleah’s bat mitzvah. We are all born with an instrument that can play great music. But, it takes us our whole lives the test the boundaries of that instrument, to see what it can really do. And, if we are really alive, whether we are five or ninety five, we’re like that ocean rushing towards the shore. We’re testing, pushing, figuring out what new music is hidden inside that instrument that we haven’t yet figured out how to get into the world.

And, the best things we do happen when someone figures out how to get a piano to play the way it really can play. So Sierra Williams by all logic shouldn’t even be in college, let alone at USC. Her single mother isn’t college educated. Her brother is in prison. Many of the kids in her neighborhood don’t even finish high school. But, her sixth grade teachers saw her potential and enrolled her in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. And, now for the first time, she is rushing towards the shore, testing the limits of her instrument.

There are certain times in our life, like our teenage years, when that testing takes on particular force. It’s as if up until that point we’ve been playing harpsichord music on our piano, and suddenly we realize what else we can do with this instrument. That testing can make other people around us uncomfortable, especially our parents and teachers. But, we should remember, that bracha/blessing means a chick that is trying to break out of its shell—not to be destructive—but to draw new, expanded boundaries of life and meaning.

The art of living is to live in that creative space between Tazria and Metzora, between creativity and identity. Robert Frost said ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ We naturally resist boundaries. And, we should. That’s what we were made to do. But, boundaries are also are friends. They beckon us to test them, to push against them, and to discover the outer limits of the instrument we call our soul. These powerful souls are contained within a tiny shell which we call the human body. But, if we incline our ear to the soul of another human being, we can hear the ocean roar.