Background Music

We’re on our way back from an extraordinary shabbaton in Orlando. The theme was “OurLANDo- Exploring our Connection to Israel.”  I spoke in shul on shabbos morning. Below are my remarks:

Shabbat Shalom. I want to start this derasha by reading to you from a tattered old notebook that’s almost 30 years old. 29 years ago, when I graduated high school I went to study in Yeshivat Hakotel. I decided to keep a journal- and it was a great decision.

September 2 1988- I decided to start keeping a journal. I figure it will be interesting to read my journal in a few years. Some people come to Israel wanting to change themselves in a specific way. I came to Israel to learn about a greater commitment to Judaism. I mean I don’t necessarily want to change , but if I decide that it would be better for myself, then I’ll change.

And I record in painstaking detail things that I did throughout the year and what I was thinking about. The first few months are mostly about what restaurants I went to, how much fun I was having and how I couldn’t really bring myself to learn that much.

Fast forward to May 10, 1989

The night of Yom Hazikaron I went to a Tekes down at the kotel that was very nice…The next day we went to Har Herzl for a tekess there and we went to the grave of a boy named Landau who had learned at Hakotel. We said some Tehilim by his grave and when we were done, a solider who looked about 50 years old or so came over and said “Thank you, I’m Yair’s father.” That struck me like a whip. Tears welled up and I let some out at the sight of father kissing his son’s gravestone and at a young lady crying at the grace of who probably seemed to probably be her young husband.  I think I want to move to Israel.

What is it about that moment that made me want to move to Israel and why do I think everyone in this room should consider aliyah?

It’s not that it’s a mitzvah to live in Israel, although it is.

It’s not that it’s a refuge for Jews in trouble, although it is.

It’s not that it’s a way for us to be in charge of our destiny, although it is.

And it’s not just that it’s a vehicle for us to fulfill our mission of being an Ohr Lagoyim, although it is.

Here’s the point I’d like to focus on this morning: Background Music. When we see a great movie, the music in the background sets the scene.  Background music can be subtle but it deeply affects our emotions. If you’re like me, then you’ve probably cried at touching scenes in movies. There are plenty of touching scenes that happen every day in our lives, but most of us don’t feel compelled to cry and are not overcome by emotions the way we are when we watch a movie or a TV show. The background music makes all of the difference. You may not realize it but that music you may not be paying attention to is influencing you in very profound ways.

Moshe Rabeinu as we know was not raised in his parents’ home but in the home of Paroh. The Ibn Ezra asks a simple question- Why did Hashem set the plan up like this with Moshe growing up in Paroh’s palace? Was it just to create a dramatic scene, made for the movies, in which the powerful Paroh is confronted by a mischievous Moshe who attacks the very throne that he sat on as a child? Ibn Ezra suggests it’s all about the background music. By growing up in Paroh’s palace Moshe was exposed to a life of liberty, a feeling of freedom, expectations of excellence and the sense that nothing was impossible. The music in his background, influenced Moshe in a profound way, ways that he may not have realized himself, but ways that made him who he was!

Let’s go back to this Yair Landau. I realize now why I was so moved as I stood shocked in Har Herzl on Yom Hazikaron some 28 years ago when I was 18 years old. This is what shook me and I hope it shakes you:

Do you know what Israeli high school kids do in high school? Pretty much the same stuff you do. They learn, they make friends, have a good time, they have drama, there are cliques- everything that we have.  But you know what the huge difference is? A typical Israeli high school senior is thinking about what army unit he wants to serve in, or perhaps what she wants to do when she serves the country doing Sherut Leumi, national service. The typical American Jewish teenager is obsessed with getting into college. I don’t blame you. I’m part of the system that promotes the hysteria about getting into the best colleges you can get into. I understand why you fight for one extra point on a test because you think that your college acceptance might hinge on that, and it might! But do you realize what a big difference it must make on one’s character, how it must affect WHO you are, when you’re obsessing over how to best serve your country, how to save Jewish lives and how to build a Jewish future as opposed to how to get into an Ivy league, how to get into Maryland or how do I get into YU Honors, or a Florida state school or whatever college is a just a bit out of reach? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the typical Israeli kid is some sort of heroic figure. He’s a regular kid, but this is what I mean by background music. In Israel the background music of a high school student is serving the Jewish people. In America, the background music of a high school student is about building a resume and crafting a transcript.

I really think that one of the key reasons to make aliyah is to immerse yourself in a life with a soundtrack that plays the music of the future of the Jewish people, a soundtrack that will automatically infuse your life with a deeper meaning than what is typical of our lives here in America. It’s not just about serving the Jewish people, it’s also about living in a society that is leading the way for the Jewish future.

Now I know full well, that most of the people in this room aren’t going to make aliyah. Although many will, and I am so proud of our graduates who have done so. There is still a lesson that those of us staying here in America can apply to our lives. Just like we can choose to make aliyah and enjoy the background music of life in Israel, we can change the channel and choose the background music of our own lives here in America. I’d like to suggest two types of background music that we can make part of our lives. They won’t radically change everything; they are subtle but I think that the background music can make a difference. This doesn’t mean that you need to remove all of the other background music in your lives, just add to it. You can still sit on your couches playing xbox or keeping your streaks on snapchat, but you can add the following too. I want to focus on seeing and listening.

  1. Seeing Heroes. Who are the pictures of that are hanging on the wall in your bedroom?  Are they pictures of athletes, of actors, of musicians? Is it possible to think about someone who is an inspiration to you? Someone who you admire not for their fame but for their contribution to the world, whether the Jewish world or the general world?  Perhaps a grandparent? Who do we hold up as heroes? If you place certain heroes as your background music it will subtly have an effect on you and help you strive for more. I challenge everyone to change the background on their lockscreen to a person they look up to as a hero or a family member who inspires them.
  2. Listening to music. Literally the background music of our lives. I cannot overstate how powerful music can be in shaping your character. Spend some time appreciating thoughtful music with lyrics that make you want to be better. They exist- if you like country music you can easily find it there. Or in rock music, there are plenty of intelligent thoughtful bands. I encourage you to see a hierarchy in the music you listen to. I decided to look at some pop music and pay attention to the lyrics; it was just so easy to find what I was looking for. Bruno Mars may have a catchy beat but do the lyrics of this popular song form what we really want to be our own background music. It’s not obscene, just inane: I got a condo in Manhattan, Baby girl, what’s hatnin’? Although it’s quite impressive to rhyme Manhattan and “hatinin”, this isn’t what I want as my background music. But more significantly when thinking about music, I must say that listening to Jewish music might be the most important thing I can recommend to you. Listening to Jewish music, all genres of Jewish music helps shape you in very subtle but significant ways. Some of you may love Simcha Leiner’s music, others may prefer the house music of things like Bas Kol. Music shapes our identities.  Making Jewish music the background music of your life can transform your Jewish identity. So I challenge everyone here to increase your listening of Jewish music. I will send out a Spotify playlist next week of great Jewish music and I challenge everyone to listen to Jewish music at some point every single day. If you already listen to a lot of Jewish music, listen to more and if you don’t listen to Jewish music, listen to at least one Jewish song a day.  It will make you happier and it will help you connect to the Jewish people. With that, I must thank Simcha Leiner who has increased our love and appreciation for Jewish music so much already.  I can’t overstate the impact that Simcha has had on our entire student body in the weeks leading up to the shabbaton and especially over the course of this Shabbos. Thank you Simcha for inspiring us. Please rise for the kaddish before musaf.
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