A few years ago, an experiment was done. The Washington Post arranged for internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play in a busy Washington, D.C., subway station during the morning commute. Three days before, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where seats went for $100. Shortly thereafter Bell was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music.
But on this day, he was just a guy playing music in a Metro station during rush hour. No one knew he was playing on a $3.5 million violin handcrafted in Italy in 1710!
Bell played for 43 minutes, during which 1,070 people walked past him. Only seven people stopped for a moment to listen, while 27 people threw in some change for a total of $32.17. A crowd never gathered, although a group of people did gather just across the way from Bell — in the line to buy lottery tickets.
You could draw a variety of conclusions from this experiment. Perhaps it showed that something of value is recognized only in the right context. Perhaps it showed that people are simply in a rush when they are trying to get to work. But it certainly showed something about the state of our lives today: We walk right past great beauty; there is genius and wonder available to us, but most of the time, our eyes are closed and we miss it.
In Vayetzei, Jacob has this realization. On a journey, he lies down for the night, puts his head on a rock, and dreams his famous dream of a ladder with angels going up and down. God appears to him and blesses him with land, with numerous offspring and with God’s promise of protection.
When Jacob wakes up, he exclaims: “God is in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Gen. 28:16-17). Rashi comments that if Jacob had known that God was there, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in such a holy place.
This verse is essentially what all of spiritual life is about — that is, simply waking up to the awareness of the Divine. Jacob wakes up and realizes God is in this place, but he just didn’t know it before. So too, we are asleep most of the time. We are like the people in the Metro station, walking unaware past awesomeness.
Our tradition has many stories about how we are asleep and our eyes are closed to the presence of God. For example, because the rest of us were too busy and distracted and surrounded by too much noise, only Abraham heard the call of Lech Lecha, “go forth,” and only those at Mount Sinai heard the revelation of Torah.
When the Washington Post asked the people why they didn’t stop to listen to the music, the most common answers were that people didn’t have time or that they were on their cell phones. The Post reporter studied the video of the 43 minutes and found that there was no demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stopped to enjoy the music from that vast majority who hurried past.
There was, however, one demographic constant: Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away. Apparently, we’re born awake to beauty and wonder, but as we get older, we get tired, distracted, busy, and rushed. If we rush past one of the world’s greatest musicians, what else might we be missing in our rush through our lives?
Jewish practice is about becoming more awake to beauty, joy and wonder — and to the Presence of the Divine.
Prayer creates quiet times of awareness of God’s presence. Saying blessings before we eat creates moments of connection and gratitude for God’s creation. Resting on Shabbat allows us a day without the noise and distractions of the computer, the television, the phone.
All these and others are ways for us to cultivate greater awareness and to wake up and say what Jacob said: “How awesome is this place!”
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.