A Humble Maestro

On one of the first days of shiva for my father, Meyer Muschel, a friend of my brother Mordy shared a beautiful reason for saying kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer).  He quoted a beautiful metaphor in the name of his father,   הרב נחום מושל ז”ל, a world renowned מחנך of the prior generation, who explained that Hashem is the maestro of the world’s orchestra.  Every one of us is charged with playing a unique instrument and that G-d himself can discern when one his instruments is out of tune or is G-d forbid missing.  When one of The Creator’s instruments has been silenced through death, the ones closest to the deceased say Kaddish to sanctify G-d’s name, substituting for the missing instrument that is so vital to Hashem’s composition.  Not only do the mourners fill in for the quieted instrument, but they also elicit sanctification from the other musicians. 

Aba speaking at Leah’s Bat Mitzvah, Teaneck 2005

I thought about the beautiful kaddish metaphor.  Metaphors remind me of my father as they bring an idea to life through a concrete example. The metaphor was one of Aba’s favorite and most powerful tools in Torah.  My father was fond of using examples that we could all picture in order to illustrate an idea.  Bulldozers.  Washing machines.  Sleeping pills.  A punctured tire.  A bald tire.  There were many metaphors that he employed and Aba expected us to give numerous examples of how the Torah idea was exemplified by the metaphor.  He expected us to show where the metaphor excelled and at times, where it failed.

So, I turned this metaphor around in my head, engaging with every facet, as my father would expect of me. 

If every person in the orchestra is playing an instrument, then which one was my father asked to play?  Which instrument demanded 18+ hours a day of rehearsal?  Which shy instrument asserted itself only for the benefit of the composition? Which instrument was enjoyed mostly because of its humility and creative melody?  Which one possessed no ego for its own musical majesty, but owned the confidence to respectfully challenge the melodies of other musicians?  Which instrument could distill a complex melody to its essence? 

Perhaps my father played one of the lead instruments.  A violin?  A clarinet?  The solo instrument that highlighted the melody while the others accompanied? The instrument with a wide musical range? The instrument that required the most intense rehearsal? Or, was my father asked to play an unusual instrument whose gravelly voice complemented and enhanced the smooth sound of other instruments?

As much as I tried to picture the instrument that my father had played, I couldn’t settle on one. So, I retooled the metaphor.    

After all, there are those who play an instrument and those who conduct the orchestra, guiding other instrumentalists.    For one composition, there are countless ways to uniquely express the arrangement using the ability, creativity and interest of the players with the singular vision of its conductor. 

It is the conductor who waves his baton, making certain that others follow his example and musical perspective, joining forces to produce a majestic symphony.  It is the meticulous and hard-working maestro who persuades the musicians to achieve their best.  It is through the conductor’s creativity and vision that others can find their own voice, blending in the service of the orchestra.  For a single composition, each conductor can interpret the music in a way that fulfills the vision of the composer, while staying true to the unique blended expression of the orchestra. 

So, I believe that my father was the maestro of a symphony of his unique time and place, summoning confidence and creativity as he coaxed others to play the music of Torah through a melodious conversation with The Creator.  His concert hall was the Beis Medrash (Torah study hall)  and every space that he converted into his own Beis medrash.  In my father’s inimitable, shy and no-nonsense way, his baton was raised for others to follow. 

However, if my father was the maestro, then the metaphor remains flawed. There are two important pieces that are missing. 

First, if my father was the conductor, does that imply that his role was only to lead? As the maestro, was my father silent during the symphony? What about his own music? Did our metaphor’s maestro still play his own music once he began handling a baton? And, how does our maestro maintain humility while leading the orchestra?

The maestro must play his own music, as my father never stopped developing his own chidushim (new aspects of Torah) once he began teaching Torah. He never expected his instrumentalists to practice their music, while he stopped rehearsing and advancing his own. Our maestro listened, but was rarely silent during the symphony, while he allowed others’ music to shine. Even from the podium, our great maestro remained humble as he wrote, taught and recorded Torah.

Second, if my father was a maestro with his own musical instrument, then where is G-d in this metaphor?  If He is not the conductor, then where and what is He?

G-d is, of course, The Composer.  The Composer is the One who developed, develops and will continue to develop the music that the maestro and the orchestra perform. The Composer defers to the maestro and the orchestra to infuse the symphony with creativity and vision. He expects the maestro to be versed and vigilant so that the integrity of the composition is true to the composer’s original intent. The maestro is expected to express his unique perspective and style.

My father was indeed both a maestro and an instrumentalist, teaching Torah to himself and to everyone in the orchestra. Aba’s orchestra was melodious and grand, not because of its exclusivity but precisely because it included all our voices. Aba’s style and mastery of the Composer’s music was always true to G-d’s original intent, but was infused with the memorable metaphors and insightful chakiros (explorations) that were his own.

I hope that through the recitation and response to kaddish for my father, we stay true to his Torah vision while sanctifying the Composer. My prayer is that even after the completion of kaddish, the musicians of our world will continue to look to our maestro’s musical instrument and to his baton. May my father’s inclusive, inimitable, yet humble leadership guide our majestic music in the service of our Composer eternally.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Aba learning and teaching at Bnai Yeshurun, Teaneck 2020

7 comments

  1. Absolutely beautiful! What a deep and meaningful tribute to your father! May his neshomo have an aliya. Mindy

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