The Torah instructs us: “Be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d.” Rashi quotes the words of the Sifrei as follows: “Conduct yourself with Hashem with simplicity and depend on Him... Accept whatever happens to you with (pure) simplicity, and then you will be with Him.” If one accepts whatever comes his way, Hashem will be with him, as well.
On November 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the world-renowned violinist, came on stage to give a concert in New York City’s Avery Fisher Music Hall (recently renamed David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Center. If you have ever seen a Perlman concert, you will know that getting on stage is no small achievement for this man. He was stricken with polio as a child, and wears braces on both legs. He walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage, one slow, painful step at a time, is an awesome sight. Although he walks with obvious distress, his bearing is regal as he makes his way to his chair. Then he sits down, slowly puts his crutches on the floor, unhooks the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Finally, he bends down, picks up his violin and puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor, and proceeds to play.
By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he unhooks the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.
But on the night of November 18, 1995, something went wrong. The music began as usual and the sweet strains of his violin hummed delightfully through the hall. Midway through his performance, however, one of the strings on his violin snapped. In fact, everyone in the audience could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room! There was no mistaking what that sound meant, and the audience gasped in collective consternation. The music stopped suddenly and one could hear a pin drop in the vast hall. All eyes were on Perlman – waiting for him to get up, put on his leg clasps again, pick up the crutches, and limp his way offstage – either to find another violin, or to find another string for the broken one. But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled to the conductor to continue playing.
The orchestra began again, and Perlman played from where he had left off. That evening, he played with such passion, such power, and such purity – as he had never played before. Of course, everyone knows that it is nigh impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings on a violin. I know that, and you know that; but on that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, adjusting, and practically recomposing the symphonic piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was retuning the strings to extricate new sounds from strings that had never made them before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then the people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. Every man, woman, and child was on his or her feet, screaming and cheering, admiring the strength and passion of this great musician and showing appreciation for what he had done.
For his part, Itzhak Perlman smiled, and sat in his chair, seemingly oblivious to the waves of applause that washed over him. He was breathing heavily – the strain of his extraordinary performance left him winded. And then, he wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the crowd, and spoke – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Simple words, but so powerful! A line that is memorable and all-encompassing. Perhaps this is the definition of life – not just for artists, but for each and every human being. Look at Itzhak Perlman. Here is a man who has practiced all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, when all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, he finds himself shorthanded. What does he do? Does he give up? No. He makes music with three strings, and the music he plays that night is more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any he has ever played before – even when his instrument has the usual four strings.
“Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokecha.” Perhaps our task in the shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music - at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, with whatever it is we have left.