How Yo-Yo Ma became God

I witnessed the great cellist engaged in an act of Jewish mysticism. Really.

The Silk Road ensemble

Isn’t it time for something totally non-political, and perhaps even non-controversial?

Except for those of you who discern blasphemy in a statement suggesting that the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has become God.

Here is how I came to that (admittedly outrageous) conclusion.

Last night, we had the pleasure of experiencing Yo-Yo Ma in concert at the Arsht Center in Miami, with the Silk Road ensemble.

The music was captivating — an almost dizzying celebration of musical diversity, incorporating many different musical styles from the cultures of the fabled Silk Road, that stretches from the Middle East into Asia.

Here was the amazing thing.

Yo-Yo Ma said one paragraph as an introduction to the concert.

And then, he sat back, and he played the cello.

That was it.

He allowed the other musicians to play, speak, and teach.

Yes, that is how Yo-Yo Ma became God.

Or, god-like.

Let me explain.

One of the greatest minds of Jewish history was Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century mystic of Safed, who was also called the Ari.

Luria realized that in traditional Jewish thought, God fills all space.

If that is possible, he wondered aloud — how can the universe exist? There would be no room for it!

Luria invented an amazing idea.

He taught that God had to contract into the divine self — that God had to shrink in order to allow room for the universe to exist.

That heady idea is called tzimtzum — contraction.

When that happened, light poured out of the divine self. That light filled primordial vessels, which then proceeded to shatter.

That act of shattering left pieces of the divine scattered all over creation.

Whenever Jews do mitzvot, it was as if they are restoring the world – and God – to its primal unity.

That is the idea that Jews, and others, call tikkun olam.

We tend to associate tikkun olam with acts of social justice.

But, in fact, whenever we do any mitzvah, even and especially ritual mitzvot, such as Torah study, Shabbat, and kashrut, we are repairing of the world. Each of those mitzvot, and many others, could help redeem the divine sparks from their exile.

Back to God.

God had to “shrink” in order to make room for the world to exist. In a similar way, leaders must make themselves “smaller” in order for their followers to actually do the right thing. It is true of teachers, coaches – and especially parents. In modern psychological terms, we must limit our ego in order to let others grow.

As the late contemporary Jewish thinker Eugene B. Borowitz taught in 1974:

Take the case of a parent who has the power to insist upon a given decision and a good deal of experience upon which to base that judgment. In such an instance, the urge to compel is almost irresistible. Yet if it is a matter the parent feels the child can handle,  — better, if making this decision and taking responsibility for it will help the child grow – then the mature parent withdraws and makes it possible for the child to choose.

Dr. Borowitz was applying the idea of tzimtzum to parenting. He also applied it to teaching, and to leadership.

And now, back to Yo-Yo Ma.

Everyone knows how amazing Yo-Yo Ma is. That was not the point. The master cellist decided, consciously or unconsciously, to step back, to withhold himself and his artistry — and to let other artists step into the moment and to fully be themselves.

Yo-Yo Ma was engaging in tzimtzum.

It takes real artistry not only to know when to do — but when not to do, as well.

PS. To my friends and readers in the Twin Cities: I will be giving a series of talks and programs at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul this coming weekend. Here is the schedule; I would love to see you there!


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