Are You Ready for Anything?

No doubt you've seen this story somewhere:

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, in the middle of the morning rush hour. A youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap emerged from the Metro L’Enfant Plaza in Washington. From a small case, he removed a violin; placing the open case at his feet. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces while 1,097 people passed by.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. It costs around $3.5 million.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

This story has been around the internet for the past two decades. You have probably heard it before. People have utilized it to highlight the importance of being present, aware, and learning to see the beauty all around us. But what most do not know, is that there is a sequel:

In 2014, seven years later, Bell returned to that same station, only this time, people were informed ahead of time.

This time, more than 1,000 fans and curious onlookers packed half of the station's cavernous main hall for the free 30-minute concert, which included selections by Bach and Mendelssohn.

It was the same virtuoso, the same violin, similar music, and yet this time, people paid attention. This time, it was precious. This time it was meaningful, this time it was beautiful.

What Changed?

This phenomenon exists in our own lives. Sometimes, we come to shul, come home from work, call our mothers, and we feel as if we are gaining nothing from it. It’s routine, rote, required. By all standards, it’s meaningless.

Yet from time to time, those same activities are transformative and transcendent. And I’d like to know why. What differentiates these two experiences, the two concerts, these two lifestyles?

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Drash Moshe (ד״ה בזאת) explains that it this question that the Torah is addressing in our parsha. The Torah details the process by which Aharon HaKohen would prepare to enter the Kodesh Kodashim – once a year, on Yom Kippur. But strangely, a full 29 pesukim go by before telling us that the day upon which all of this occurs is Yom Kippur!

Rav Moshe explains: the secret to entry into all Kedusha, meaning and purpose is in the preparation. Without the 28 pesukim explaining why this is important, it can never be experienced as such. Once Aharon is prepared, only then can his enter be meaningful.

The idea is echoed by the Seforno (16:12):

כִּי תֵּיכֶף שֶׁנִּשְׁחַט חַטָּאת וְהִתְוַדָּה וְסָר עֲוֹנוֹ, נַעֲשָׂה מוּכָן לֵיאוֹר בְּאוֹר פְּנֵי מֶלֶךְ. וְהִנֵּה הַמֶּלֶךְ יֵרָאֶה לַכֹּל מוּכָן לְאוֹרוֹ

As soon as the sin offering had been slaughtered and he had previously recited his confession so that his sins had been removed, he was now ready to face the “King,” who would look upon him with favor.

The difference between Joshua Bell’s first concert, and his second, was not his skill, or the inherent value of the music, it was whether or not people were ready to hear it.

Preparations and Priorities

The Chofetz Chaim teaches that the one can discern how important something is from how much time and effort one spends preparing for it. Something unimportant requires little serious preparation. If one wants to make a cup of tea, this takes very little effort because a cup of tea is not that important in the big scheme of things. Planning a vacation, a simcha, a wedding takes a lot longer because these are important events.

But preparing for a moment or event is not part of our daily routine. We “fall into” moments, rushing between netflix, work and obligations. We go through the motions, but we are not prepared for them. Our lives seem to be a constant stream of events, that we scroll through like a social media feed – with little time to prepare, connect or reflect.

My Rebbe, Rav Blachman told us once of a young man who called to say he had just had a son, and wanted parenting advice. Rav Blachman later told me, if that’s when you’re asking, you’re at least nine months too late.

Couples sometime complain that a few years after getting married, it feels like the spark is gone. What changed? We stop planning. We stop anticipating. We stop preparing, so the time we spend together feels just like a virtuoso playing masterpieces for harried commuters. She’s the same girl; he’s the same guy, but without the effort of preparation, we demonstrate a lack of importance.

The same is true in our Avodas Hashem. Are we ready for shul? Are we ready for Shabbos? Or do we arrive as if by accident?

Ready for Something...

Shavuos, more than any other Chag is characterized by this Hachana, this preparation. By applying the Chafetz Chaim’s idea: if the preparations for Shavuos and our acceptance of the Torah are more extensive than they are for any other holiday, it demonstrates that Shavuos has a unique importance not shared by any other day of the year. If Hashem commands us to count toward and long for the arrival of Shavuos for forty-nine days, it shows that we should value the Torah more than anything else. This preparation and the value we place on the Torah is therefore part and parcel of how we receive the Torah.

There is a profound depth to Minhagei Yisrael – the customs of our people. Somehow, despite omitting this text from the performance of most mitzvos, the official nussach of counting the Omer includes הנני מוכן ומזומן – I’m ready, I’m prepared. During Sefirah, more than any other time, we're trying to live lives that are not scrolling by.

The Beis Yaakov of Izbitz writes that the definition of Kedusha is ההפך של מה בכך – the opposite of 'whatever'. That's the goal for these weeks – living lives of planned importance.

Hashem should help us become מוכן ומזומן people – ready, prepared, anticipating that we too can achieve Kedusha.