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Peter J. Rubinstein
Singing Their Music (Yom Kippur Yizkor 2012/5773)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 26, 2012

It was November 1995. It was Avery Fisher Hall. It was Itzhak Perlman the violinist who came onstage to begin the concert. He walked painfully, yet majestically until he reached his chair. It’s a ritual with which audiences are familiar. He puts his crutches down, bends to unclasp his braces, tucks one foot behind him and one forward, picks up his violin and is ready to begin.

The story that is told is that this time, it was somewhat different. Just a few bars into the piece he was playing with the orchestra, one of the strings of his violin snapped. And it snapped with such force that everyone in the concert hall heard it. Perlman and the orchestra stopped. The audience was prepared for what they knew had to happen: he had to take up his crutches and clasp his braces, limp his way offstage and either find another violin or fix the one he had.

But he didn’t.

It’s said that he waited a minute, settled, and signaled to the conductor to begin again. And he played beautifully by all reports. Lustrously like never before. The violin with only three strings—one string short.

Now, musicians would say it’s impossible to play the violin with three strings. But Perlman apparently didn’t know that. He modulated, recomposed, changed, and coaxed new sounds not heard before from the three remaining strings.

When he was finished, there was silence, followed by a spontaneous outburst of applause. The audience was immediately on their feet cheering. Afterward, Perlman reflected and said this:

“You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find how much music you can still make with what you have left. ”

Perlman’s reflection certainly is about instrumental music, but it is equally true for those of us who mourn, how after the death of someone who is precious, we might continue to make great music with what we have left.

For some, this has been a year of enormous loss: perhaps the death of someone who is so close to your heart that it is as though he or she was your heartbeat itself; as though they were life itself.

Some here mourn for children, who in memory will stay the same age forever. When children die, it is the cruellest cut of all. The pain is searing, the scar is forever.

And some mourn parents who celebrated your achievements and struggles, stood beside and behind you and took pride in what you did, in your best and your worst times.

Others mourn siblings, with whom you shared childhood, growing up, kvetching together about your parents, and laughing through it all.

And there are other members of your family, or colleagues, or friends within the larger circle of your life’s constellation that you have lost. They are embedded in your memory, they are in the mental photographs you carry with you, they are so much a part of everything you are and of what you will become.

And some few of you are mourning spouses: a husband, a wife with whom you shared life’s dreams for years or decades or half a century or more, and who died this year. Your stories are different: a few of you fell in love when you were teens, or just out of the army or navy; you were at a party or in some improbable place as a result of seemingly impossibly coincidences. And from the beginning, that love never faded; it grew, it was magical. And then one day it is suddenly as though there is no one to hug, no one lying by your side, no one to turn or speak to, or laugh with at the end of the day. You may not be alone but you feel strangely lonely.

Psalm 19, one of my favorites, describes the miracle of creation and says,  “There is no speech, there are no words. ” While words and song, poetry and ballads give voice to so many of life’s experiences, when trying to describe the exquisite feeling of being in love or the miracle of watching the birth of a child, or a grandchild, or the pain of laying a loved one in the grave, it may be that “there is no speech, and there are no words.”

At the time of death sometimes the best we can say is “We miss them.” We miss them.

We will miss them at family celebrations. We will miss them when we struggle. We will miss them when no one else will understand or hold our hand when need. We will miss them when we need to confide or boast a bit. We will miss watching them grow up or old and being with them for both.

And yet, though the great Hebrew poet Bialik believes that with death, the music of one’s life stops, I prefer Perlman’s exposition that we still have their music within us. And it is from them we hear the melody and with them that we sing with harmony. For the music of those we mourn will ring forth in the stories we tell and in the smiles that form when we remember them. And it will be in the chances we take when we feel tentative, so afraid are we, but we take these chances because they give us strength. And it will be the music of our yearnings and our memories and our rejoicing. It will be the music that lifts our spirits and accompanies us on our next step, and joins us in the continuing dance of our life.

We miss them. But they are, you see, with us forever. Even now, in this place, and at this time, because we will sing their song. It will be different and nuanced. But it will be lovely. Superbly lovely because it is their music. And for them, we will sing.

May we all have strength in memory. Amen.

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