Bonnaroo. Standing in a field surrounded by 90,000 people in the sweltering Tennessee heat, I counted down the minutes. Only 120 left until I was certain that my life was going to change.
Rewind a year to that same field in Tennessee – no doubt surrounded by many of the same people – and I’ve just seen Radiohead perform a set that quite literally knocked the words out of my mouth and left me silent. Trying to describe the experience as we walked back to our campsites, almost everyone was left searching for words that would do justice to the transcendent musical experience we had all shared. I don’t use the word transcendent lightly. It was – quite literally – an experience that elevated me to new heights. After hours, it seemed that most people had settled on beautiful as the only word that accurately reflected the concert. Turning to a friend, I proclaimed “Well now I’m screwed. No concert will ever be better than that.”
I was wrong.
With 120 minutes left until Paul McCartney was set to take the stage, my body tingled in anticipation. I was going to see and hear a Beatle sing to me.
I grew up with The Beatles constantly in my ears. My parents fed my sister and me a regular dose of classic rock, folk, and classical music, but it was The Beatles who were the staple soundtrack of my childhood, enjoying a weekly set every Sunday out of our old-school, wooden stereo speakers.
So when Macca took the stage and played over three hours worth of thirty-eight songs, I knew nothing would ever be the same. Radiohead’s mind-penetrating experimental music be damned, this was the original stuff. You can search elsewhere if you’d like a musical review of the show; this one’s more spiritual.
Towards the end of Paul’s sonically blistering (he can still wail on “Helter Skelter”) and emotionally moving (I dare any grown man not to shed tears when he sings “Here Today”) set, as fireworks exploded in the sky above me and 90,000 people sang “Naaaah, na na na na na naaaaah, na na na naaaaah…,” I was completely caught off guard. Like a punch to the soul, my body and brain united in a reaction to the experience. While Radiohead left me speechless looking for adjectives to describe the concert, Paul McCartney completely took over my body, soul, and brain.
Before that day, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I physically felt this way. Some people call these sensations hokey, hippy, or crunchy-granola. Fine. Let it be. All I can vouch for is that something for me changed, as my body reacted to the experience:
- I felt a complete sense of oneness with the 90,000 people around me. Simultaneously and without contradiction, I also felt as though I wasn’t standing in a crowd of strangers, but was the only one who the music was being played for.
- I felt pure thankfulness for being in that singular moment. For me, that was directed towards God. For others, it may have been to someone or something else. But the moment for me was one of sincere spirituality that was directly tied to my own personal theology.
- Feeling the experience coursing through my veins and sending shivers up and down my spine, I questioned why anyone would need the help of drugs, when you can experience a full-body-high naturally. As it happens, it turns out there’s some science behind this. But for me, it went far beyond biology.
At the end of the set – recalling our Radiohead experience a year earlier – I turned to my friend with a bittersweet look on my face and said, “Well, shit. Nothing in life will ever be the same. It’s all downhill from here.”
I was wrong.
Last night, exactly a month after seeing McCartney, my body was hit with the same sensations of oneness and thankfulness.
With sweet music ringing in my ears and a leaping flame in front of my eyes, my body was thrown back to that field in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t have been further from there. Here, in the center of Jerusalem, as my classmates and I marked the end of Shabbat and the beginning of our formal schooling on our paths to becoming Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, my body and soul reacted again to an experience in a shocking way. I felt at one with the 40 souls surrounding me, united in the journey ahead of us. I felt a supreme sense of thanks to God for bringing me to this moment in time. Blessed to experience that soul-punching sensation again, the two central foci of my life – music and Judaism – were united in a way that I couldn’t have expected.
That this moment occurred during a Havdallah service is particularly serendipitous, as the ceremony is a multi-sensory experience that – much like Radiohead and McCartney – has the power to cut straight to the human soul. The sight of the flame, the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the wine, and the beauty of the melodies give our body a lingering sensation of the neshama – the soul – of shabbat.
It seems to me that it’s no surprise that music and Jewish spirituality have the power to biologically affect our bodies in similar ways. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said that the most direct way humans can attach ourselves to God is through music and song. Chassidut teaches that every neshama has its own melody before making the descent into the human world.
Lucky that I get to spend an entire year of spiritual and musical growth with this group of people, I only wish I could say the same for my relationship with Paul McCartney…