If the pandemic has had any blessings, it’s that we have time to cook dinner together several nights a week. It’s a way for us to bond as a family and make joy in what can be a pretty joyless situation. To make things even better, we put on music and sing along. The other night, I was listening to Imagine Dragons, one of my favorite bands, and singing the song “Bleeding Out” while making tostadas. My daughter, 12, comes downstairs right at the chorus, and sings over me the chorus to Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro.” What ensued was an impromptu mashup of father-daughter sing-off while mashing avocado for guacamole. We realized that many of the songs we listen to share the same chords, and we cruised from one song to the next with only slight shifts in tempo and key. As we munched on our crunchy shells and black beans, I realized that dozens and dozens of famous songs are all written using the same four chords. Everything from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to Beyonce’s “I Was Here” to Adele’s “Hello,” all share the same paradigm. Across hundreds of songs for thousands of years in all genres, there is a meta-pattern that taps into something very basic and primal within us. It made me think that even as the melody changes, there is something in us that doesn’t.
Something immortal. Something real. Something essential.
What the best art does is to use the music, color, or images that seem to come from somewhere else, and tap into a part of our essence. When you hear a lyric and suddenly heave, or when you see an image and say, “yes.” These are powerful moments when the outer world and your inner self touch. When you feel suddenly overcome by the moment when watching or listening to art, it’s because something inside of you has been seen, perhaps for the first time.That is the feeling of being fully alive, of feeling real, and living out of your essence. What makes art so powerful is that it brings to the surface our essential selves.
Living from your essence, like music, needs something from without that helps to touch and guide what is within. Religion itself is a sacred form of art. It takes the most wonderous medium – you – and mixes you upon the palette of the universe to find your most powerful, loved, fierce self. Living out of your essence is the purpose of religious life, where you are the clay and God is a potter, helping to shape your life into a beautiful, but never perfect, masterpiece.
Shaping your immortal self. Shaping your real self. Shaping your essential self.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we find the music of Jewish life. If we had any meta-pattern or primal chord progression it would be found here, in the Book of Exodus. At the center of this week’s reading is the Ten Commandments, the ten utterances of God that have shaped Western culture for millennia. Like a good song, they tap into something deep within our consciousness and draw out from us the power to transform our lives from where we are to where we could be.
At first glance, the Ten Commandments look like a list of obligations; they are laws, after all. There is a religious stratum in the midrash that when the people approached Mount Sinai to hear God’s revelation, they stood, “at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:17) The phrase in Hebrew is ambiguous, for it could also be translated as “under the mountain.” The rabbis of the midrash imagined God lifting the mountain over the people, like a wine cask, and saying, “If you do not follow My laws, this will be your burial.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a)
The problem with this view is that God’s revelation here is characterized as entirely heteronomous, meaning coming from outside. The Israelites had no choice but to accept. In that sense morality is appeasement, not consent. This, I believe, is only one view, and one that rings very hollow and has steered us in the wrong direction. Thankfully, a different way of thinking also exists in Jewish life. In this imaginative view, Mount Sinai is not a scary place, but a beautiful one. God’s voice is not threatening, but loving. It is not the scene of a funeral, but of a wedding.
According to another midrash, Mount Sinai was covered in flowers and the clouds of heaven formed a chuppah or wedding canopy. When God came down from the mountain, the Divine voice called upon Israel not to be afraid, but “show yourself to me” like a “dove in the cleft of the rock.” (Song of Songs 2:14) God then spoke lovingly, saying, “You are so beautiful, just so beautiful, with eyes like the dove.” (Song of Songs 1:15) Each utterance of love was filled with mitzvot. (Song of Songs Rabba 1:15) From this view, God’s voice from Sinai is one that tries to touch the very deep, innermost part of ourselves, and asks us to live from our essence. God names what we already know but never articulated, that to live a full life, we must live in a way that has gratitude for what we have, to live with integrity, to not harm others on the body or their property, and most importantly, to never confuse the values of the material world with the values of the spiritual one. Just like art.
Something immortal. Something real. Something essential.
Rather than seeing the Ten Commandments as a shopping list of obligations that shape our spirits into one that always asks, “What do I need to do?” – the more loving approach is one that sets that meta-pattern of chord progression that asks, “Who do I want to be?” In that sense, when you live from your essence, like good music that taps into something inside of you, a Jewish autonomy is heteronomy made personal. The mitzvot are not a list of someone else’s priorities, they are a blueprint to help you name your own. Religion is the sacred art of bringing us to our fullest life, and the Ten Commandments are the baseline, the chord progression where the outer world and the inner world touch us most fully.