On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat among a capacity crowd in a darkened auditorium. I sat on the edge of my seat as, upon the stage, about a hundred young people between the ages of ten and seventeen played complex classical musical masterpieces with stunning perfection. The music by Beethoven, Bruch, and Mahler was being played by members of a city youth orchestra. It was the youth orchestra of one of America’s most deeply troubled cities. Violent crime, high school drop-out rates, rampant drug use and the virtual abolition of normal family life plague this city. Surviving somehow, in this desert of doom and destruction, were these children who devoted hours to honing their musical talents and their parents who made music lessons a priority despite competing pulls on their time and finances. There I sat in open-mouthed astonishment in a virtual oasis, surrounded by the parents and siblings as these young virtuosos played their hearts out on stage.
But wait! Was my sense of wonder really well placed? In many parks and fields around that same city were plenty of other groups of young people. They were playing football, soccer or basketball. Of those, quite a few were on teams playing proficiently. Is there really any difference between being on a football team and playing in a youth orchestra? Don’t they both require discipline, dedication, and teamwork? Why be more amazed at music than basketball? I asked myself whether there really is any true and objective reason to value participating in a youth orchestra more than participating in athletics and sports?
To answer that question, I had to ask why students who play in a youth orchestra generally achieve far greater academic prowess at school than those who excel in sports? If classical music and sports and athletics both require proficiency, discipline and teamwork, why does academic achievement correlate more closely with Bach, Brahms and Beethoven than with basketball, baseball and bodybuilding? Clearly the discipline and dedication found in both are not the causation. Something else is causing the correlation between classical music and academic proficiency.
As usual, when baffled, I turn to ancient Jewish wisdom. Exodus 25 opens with God telling Moses what gifts he should accept from Israel in order to build a home for Him so that he may ‘dwell among them.’ He then proceeds to specific directions for building the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus 25:10)
After 8 verses of Ark details that any competent craftsman could follow, He arrives at this verse:
Make two cherubs of gold…at the two ends of the cover.
At this point, I would have expected Moses to interject with, “Excuse me Lord, but what was that? Did you say cherubs? What are cherubs?”
Since Moses did not ask, he must have known what cherubs are. Moses never saw the cherubs that Michaelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just over 500 years ago. But for the rest of us, we all know they are adorable little chubby toddlers of no particular gender with wings on their backs. Or are they?
Moses was not nonplussed by the command to make golden cherubs because he was already familiar with them from the following verse:
The Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the earth from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubs….to guard the way to the tree of life.
The conventional wisdom is that the purpose of the cherubs was to guard the way to the Tree of Life in order to prevent anyone from reaching it. However, as is so often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. Ancient Jewish wisdom, in my experience a far more reliable guide, informs us that an accurate reading of the Hebrew original proves that the cherubs were there to guard the way, in order to keep the path back to the Tree of Life open. What is more, the cherubs were far from androgynous infants. Each set of cherubs comprised a mature human male and female with gender quite undisguised. Their role was not to obstruct those who seek the Tree of Life but to guide them onto the appropriate path of an uplifted spirit via marriage and God’s Biblical blueprint.
How, you might ask, does one find the way back to the Tree of Life? Easy, just follow the clue of the cherubs. The cherubs are stationed at the Garden of Eden to usher you into your destination just as they are also stationed on the Ark containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments in order to point the way to the start of your journey.
The Torah, summed up in the Ten Commandments, along with the wisdom it contains is often referred to as a tree of life based on the following verse.
It [Scripture] is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy.
The cherubs are signposts on the path to uplifting self-improvement. That path is unequivocally associated with marriage, family, faith and the Bible and ends at the eternal Tree of Life.
One of the ways in which classical symphonic music is distinctive is that, for the most part, it is not built on the pounding bass beat found in the tribal dances of primitive societies and which characterizes most popular music. While I do appreciate and enjoy the complex chords of the Beach Boys, the clever arrangements of the Beatles and much of Freddy Mercury’s music, the simple truth is that the rhythms of classical music are immeasurably more complex. Far more concentration is required to capture the sublime beauty of a half-hour Beethoven symphony than is needed for a bouncy-beat, three-minute ode describing how much the guitar player desires his girlfriend. I admire how my friend, the great David Goldman puts it:
“…The great composers require memory. Popular music dwells in the moment, but classical music employs the past to create a sense of the future. An educated ear is required to hold in memory the musical events of a long movement in which the composer traverses an extended territory to reach the musical goal…”
Both classical music and academic attainment are matters of the soul. While there is a spiritual element, especially at the highest levels of competition, athletics and sports are basically matters of the body. It makes perfect sense that classical music proficiency correlates more with academic aptitude than football does. Which makes what I heard a hundred teenagers doing on Sunday afternoon even more breathtaking.
We join all of you in praying that the health crisis, along with the resulting economic crisis, facing our world comes to an end sooner rather than later. May this remind all of us to cherish our loved ones, strengthen ties with those in need around us and turn our hearts and minds back to our Father in Heaven. We know that many of you are spending more time at home and want to use this opportunity (as unwelcome as it may be) in a positive way.