Chassidic Artistry

By Yisroel Arye Gootblatt, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


Achieving a Life of Harmony,  Joy & Inspiration

A few years ago, I visited a local music store to browse through their extensive collection of sheet music.  For some reason, I have always been inspired by music notation; sounds and rhythms frozen in time on the page, waiting for the skilled and open hearted musician to break the ice and make them come alive again.   Even while stimulated by the variety of songs and styles at diverse levels of ability, I remained keenly aware that my reading capabilities left what to be desired.  In fact, my music making abilities hadn’t progressed that much since my last piano lessons ten years before.  And because of that, playing music, while still an exciting prospect to me, often seemed filled with the stress of a lack of meaningful progress.  Not very playful and fun.  Let’s face it, I was a frustrated musician.

I must not have been alone in my frustration; on that day in the store I first noticed a popular book called Effortless Mastery[1], by virtuoso pianist and composer Kenny Werner.  An entire manual geared to liberating the frustrated musician!   Effortless Mastery begins with Mr. Werner’s admission of his own frustrations with his musical abilities, and his discovery of how he learned to let go and let the music flow.  He teaches how a person’s fears and false self image can get in the way of the natural joy and inspiration of music and how releasing those fears and thoughts can lead to a place of harmony and calm while engaging with one’s chosen instrument.  The book caused me to question my musical goals and begin to notice the inner obstacles and irrational fears hindering my musical success, but I found myself wanting more.

First of all, Mr. Werner says that, “one must practice surrendering control to a larger, or higher force”[2].  What is this higher force we are supposed to surrender to?  Effortless Mastery does not make it clear.

Secondly, it is very common for musicians, among creative people of all disciplines, to find harmony, joy and inspiration in their work, yet struggle to translate that experience to the rest of their lives and relationships.  Mr. Werner himself concedes, “…when I touch the piano, I go into a space where everything is beautiful… all there is is love and joy… I wish I could have a piano strapped around my neck at all times!”[3]  How can my own unique quest for harmony, joy and inspiration in music translate to such harmony, joy and inspiration in my life and my relationships?

It was in the Chassidic teachings of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe) that I not only found answers to these questions, but even gained a deeper insight into how to truly actualize my potential as a musician and as a human being.

In his discourse “Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs)[4]”, the Alter Rebbe imparts the knowledge necessary to comprehend and experience “Kabbalas P’nei HaShechinah (Receiving the Essence of Divine Presence) .

Viewing prayer as the crucible and access point for this process, the Alter Rebbe begins by quoting a Talmudic statement[5] regarding the obligatory daily recital of Shma Yisroel (Hear O Israel)[6], “Hear with your ear that which you emit from your mouth”, and interprets it from a deeper perspective.  Seemingly, the word “you (atah)” is superfluous, as it is simpler to say, “Hear with your ear that which emits from your mouth”.  Such is the precision of Torah, that the inclusion of an apparently extra word holds insights well beyond the straightforward meaning of a  verse or statement.  In this case, “You (Atah)” refers, remarkably, to the Divine Presence

(Shechinah) itself.   From this we learn that your sole task while engaging in prayer is to listen to Atah, the Divine Song that the Shechinah constantly emits, and emerges from your mouth, i.e.

your experience as an individual soul.



The Shechinah is also called K’nesses Yisroel (Congregation of Israel), which is none other than the great Collective Soul comprised of all individual souls.  From this description we can begin to appreciate our role as an individual in the Great Song of the Shechinah, and how to attain harmony in our life and relationships.

Each Jewish person is inextricably linked to every other Jew.  What one individual may lack is found in someone else; all together forming a single, complete entity.  Therefore, when one dismisses another in their heart or views with disdain practically any aspect of them, their personality, their approach to learning Torah or their manner of prayer, they are effectively dismissing and lacking an essential aspect of their own self.  Moreover, the Collective Soul, the Shechinah, even the Creator’s very name will lack wholeness; therefore, the Alter Rebbe adjures us, anyone who values the word of Hashem[7] needs be extremely vigilant to harbor only a favorable attitude towards each and every person.

A fitting analogy may be to imagine K’nesses Yisroel as a grand orchestra of which each musician is an essential part.  A story is told[8] of the great conductor Arturo Toscanini who, listening to his former orchestra over the radio, could discern that one violin out of 15 in a 120 person ensemble was missing.  A reporter who was with him at the time of the broadcast, at first incredulous, confirmed with a call to the orchestra that the famed conductor’s assertion was indeed correct.  In explanation, the Maestro noted that as a former conductor of the orchestra, he was still a part of it, so to him every individual instrument was required for the perfection of the whole.

When one sees themselves and all others as irreplaceable parts of a larger masterpiece, the ability to both actualize one’s own uniqueness and relate harmoniously to the uniqueness of others becomes achievable.  The time to cultivate this perspective is during one’s daily prayer session.  One resolves that their prayers come not from the isolated and separate self, i.e. the body and its desirous enlivening soul, but from the Divine self that is shared by and interconnected with the entire Jewish people[9].  The body is simply an “ear” that listens to, and is refined by, the song of the Divine Soul, singing the ultimate truth of the Oneness of the Creator as revealed through the Unity of the Jewish people in the world.



This, then, is the meaning of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs): the Great Song that is comprised of many interconnected and indispensable individual songs.  In the course of humbling the body and the enlivening soul to be receptive to the Song of Songs, you are not so much singing as being sung, like an instrument in the hands of a master musician.  Your soul has, for the time being,  joyfully escaped the bondage of the limited self, free from serving the body and its narrow, fear-based desires.    As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya[10], “…there is no joy so great as the liberation from exile and captivity…”.   Even more, spontaneous song shows that the constrictions and limitations have been truly transcended[11].

In addition, the inner conflicts themselves became greater sources of joy in their resolution.   As the Tanya states[12], “…there is no joy before Him like the light and joy that accompanies the superior light emerging from darkness”.



There are times, however, when the simple act of listening does not elicit such a joyful flow.  This could be due to the coarseness of one’s physicality and separating ego, that the person just does not have the proper vessel to receive the inspiration[13].  It might also be that the revelation of the Divine Song is not being freely given from above at that moment, but requires some effort from the person, an arousal from below.   The sincere request before the Amidah (quiet standing prayer), “Ad-nai (Lord), open my lips, and let my mouth declare your praise” represents the effort necessary for you to arouse your own inspiration.   In this case, song from below can thereby cause the Divine Song to be revealed from above as if tipping a pitcher in order that the liquid inside pour forth.

The Alter Rebbe brings an analogy for this dynamic.  On one hand, a person who expresses words of prayer from the depths of the heart spontaneously inspires a similar feeling in those listening.  On the other hand, someone coldly uttering those same prayers summons no such reaction.  From the analogy, we can derive a practical instruction: one who is consistently accessing true inspiration and deep feeling in their own prayer or song will automatically inspire similar feelings in others.


After learning these Chassidic teachings, I was able to address my two questions above:

  • The only Higher Power worthy of surrendering to is Hashem, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the very essence of Oneness, bound in Unity with the Song of His Divine Presence, the Collective Soul of Israel comprised of many individual songs.
  • Through being receptive to the Song of Songs at the time of prayer, a person experiences harmony, joy and inspiration, which can then spread to all aspects of their life and relationships.

Since beginning to apply the above ideas, I have found my own daily prayers to be of an entirely different nature, more songful, than they were before.   This has manifested in a renewed confidence, joy and success in approaching the challenging areas of growth in my life, my relationships and as a musician.  For example, in tackling the task of learning to read music fluently, I initially had to confront certain inner obstacles: memories of past frustration, impatience, instinctive, self-defeating thoughts such as,”I’m no good” or “If I had only learned this as a child” etc..  By quieting the egoistic self to just listen to the song (in my case quite literally), one is able to overcome, and grow from, many of the very same obstacles that had previously impeded their progress.

I have also gained clarity in the light of Chassidus regarding my goals as a human being and the intentions with which I step up to play and sing.  As the Talmud teaches[14], “… the Shechinah rests [upon a person] …only in the joy of a mizvah, as is stated[15], ‘And now bring me a musician’. And so it was that when the musician played the hand of Hashem came upon him”.   As the commentaries[16] imply, it is a mitzvah to play music with the intention that the Shechinah be revealed.

As more and more individuals sing and play and live their unique divine songs, the Great Song, the Shechinah, becomes more and more revealed.  This, in turn, resonates throughout an entire world yearning to live in harmony with one another,  “In that time, there will be no hunger, no war, no [harmful] jealousy and competition, and goodness will be the abundant influence”[17]; to experience true joy, “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter…”[18]; and to be filled with the prophetic spirit of Divine inspiration, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh…”[19].  May it be immediately and in our days, amen.

[1] Werner, Kenny.  Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.  New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc., 1996. Print.

[2] Ibid. pg. 10.

[3] Ibid. pg. 142.

[4] Likkutei Torah: Shir HaShirim. 2b.

[5] Berachos 15a.

[6] Devarim 6:4.

[7] Lit. “The Name”.  Ref. to G-d Almighty.

[8] Tilles, Yerachmiel. “Studying Talmud in English.” Ascent of Safed. 25 Menachem-Av 5772.  Accessed 2/23/16.

[9] See also Likkutei Amorim chapt. 32.

[10] Likkutei Amorim chapt. 31.

[11] Sichos Kodesh (of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe) 10 Shvat 5733. As printed in Heichal Neginah pg.. 24.

[12] Likkutei Amorim chapt. 33.

[13] In the discourse, Love and Awe of Hashem.

[14] Pesachim 117a.

[15] Melachim II 3:15.

[16] Rashbam on Pesachim Ibid. See also Rashi Shabbos 30b.

[17] Rambam Hilchot Melachim u’Milchamotahem chapt. 12.

[18] Tehillim 126:2.

[19] Yoel 3:1.