My Dear Herr Kapellmeister,
It’s spring here in Jerusalem. Fields, yards, and the few vacant lots that remain in this increasingly overbuilt city are burgeoning with blood-red anemones. Two weeks ago, Ilana and I visited a hill not too far away that is carpeted with purple lupines, growing over the ruins of an ancient city. The flowers perfume the air and after each of the rainy season’s final drizzles the soil itself smells alive.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
Perhaps spring came late in Leipzig in 1727. How else to explain the sorrow of that opening chord in the organ and strings, the melody that rises, then falls as if it can go on no longer, only to rise again? Why, if your Redeemer died for your sins, did you sigh rather than celebrate? Why, if the equinox had passed and the day was already longer than the night, did you have the choir, entering just as the instrumental melody comes to rest, stun me with a wail of helplessness, of hopelessness, “Come ye daughters, share my lament—see him!”
Yes, I know, “Him,” with a capital H. A big Him for you, a little him for me.
I should tell you up front that I don’t believe in Jesus. No, I don’t believe that God the Father sent his only begotten Son to suffer for the sins of humankind. I don’t believe that the Messiah was crucified, only to rise on the third day, nor do I believe that he will come again. I have only respect for Christians for whom the passion of Christ inspires love and good works. But it’s not my story. I come from a different tradition. Gods who turn into men seem, well, a little suspicious to the Jews, just like humans who claim to be God. In my sixth decade of life, I now know that religions and belief systems do not compel moral choices. They leave us to make the same moral choices we would need to make even without them. The sacred colors our world but does not compel the colors we see; those who can hear the music of the divine experience life differently from the tone-deaf, but they must still decide what sort of music to attend to. Men and women of my faith have used the teachings of our prophets and rabbis to further hatred and iniquity, while others have used them to further love and benevolence. Your teacher Luther set the Germans against the Jews, but he also inspired your music. I do not forgive him his evil, but I value the good.
I seem to have gone off track. What I mean to say is that you wrote the St. Matthew Passion as you prepared yourself spiritually for the rejection, humiliation, and agony of your Lord. As you turned your despair to music, the Jews in Leipzig (they’d only recently been allowed back, after being expelled 300 years previously) were preparing to leave slavery for freedom, Egypt for the Promised Land. This, perhaps the greatest of your choral works, will be performed here in Jerusalem and throughout the world on Good Friday, which this year falls during our Passover week. And the way the calendars work out, that evening I and my family will be saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for my son. That’s son, with a small s. His name was Niot and he died two years ago. Like the apostles with Jesus, the Seder night was the last I had with him. Since then your music, which I have often listened to at the start of spring, sounds much different.
“Whither is my beloved gone?” the Daughter of Zion laments. “Where has your friend departed?” the chorus replies. I have to admit that for many years I did not really understand why you were so upset. After all, it happened so long ago. And don’t you all believe that Jesus is with you always? If the whole purpose of the incarnation was that Jesus die on the cross, shouldn’t you be positively joyful that he accomplished his mission so successfully?
But no one can listen to your music and think that you are just pretending, that this mourning of Christ is just a ritual. I am reminded of a homily that often comes up on Seder night. We say, as part of that ceremony, that each of us must view him or herself as having personally participated in the Exodus from Egypt. Maimonides adds a single letter to this statement and changes its meaning—he says that each of us “must show himself to have participated in the Exodus.” That is, not just go through the dry rituals prescribed for the Seder, but actually feel so strongly within that he is a freed slave that it will be evident to all those who look at him.
So you must show, you must sing your sorrow. But, still, the resurrection is soon to follow. The gloom of Good Friday dissipates on Easter Sunday. Knowing that you would be rejoicing in reunion with Jesus on the day after the morrow, how sadly should you sing on Friday?
What I wouldn’t give for a resurrection on the third day, or after the second year.
You end this Passion with a chorus that recalls the grief of the organ and strings at the beginning. True, the formerly minor harmonies are now major, but there is no happiness here—the feeling is more one of resignation. “Sleep in peace, sleep Thou in the Father’s breast,” says the libretto. There’s no indication from the voices and instruments that he will ever live again. Elsewhere the words speak of the redemption, but even where they do, your music never fully rejoices. I know that feeling—the sense that every joy that comes my way is incomplete, that a hole yawns in the middle of every happiness.
That’s what I hear now in the St. Matthew Passion. What I now hear, what I didn’t hear before my own loss, is that Jesus is not just a Him for you. He is also a him. The resurrection is a fine mystery for the immortal soul, but it is solace only for the spirit. In your Passion’s music—no matter what the formal doctrine expressed in the libretto states—the Christ who reappeared on Sunday as the Son of God was not the Jesus murdered on Friday. The man who died on Friday was a son and a friend. The incarnation of God who appeared on Sunday was neither. Jesus had come again but Mary did not have the child she had suckled, nurtured, and taught, nor James and Peter and the other apostles have the brother and companion they had studied, traveled, and eaten with. Your music says that the world, perhaps, was saved, but it was a world in which those who had known Jesus the man were still grieving, and would grieve for the rest of their lives.
Our family’s season of mourning does not end on the third day. We say kaddish on Pesach, but will visit his grave only two weeks later (in Jewish tradition, Nissan, the month of the Exodus, is a joyful one, so memorial services are put off). Just a few days after that we will ascend again to the Mt . Herzl military cemetery to mark Memorial Day, for Niot was a soldier when he died. We will bid him farewell knowing that he will not come again. But in your music I hear that, on the most fundamental human level, the brute fact that Niot will not return to me, Ilana, to his brother and sisters, to his friends, is no different from the fact that Jesus, the son of God, reappeared on earth, but no longer as the son of man. Herr Bach, I listen to your music and know that you felt the loss of Jesus as if it were the loss of your very own son. And you lost ten of your own children. I cannot imagine the grief I feel raised by an order of magnitude.
In the wake of my loss, the sublime music of your St. Matthew Passion has taught me something. There is theology, which concerns God, and there is anthropology, which concerns human beings. I appreciate, in a way I never could before, the power and attraction of a theology centered on the loss of a son. After all, until not long ago, it was an experience, a tragedy, a rupture that nearly every family underwent. Yet what I hear in your music is not a grief for a lost God. It is the devastation not of God the father but of Johann Sebastian Bach the father, who has lost so many sons and daughters, for each of whom he grieves for the rest of his life. And for that father there is no consolation in the resurrection of the Son of God, only resignation and acceptance. Spring may be here, the flowers may bloom in the Promised Land and the soil may be moist and warm and ready to produce life, but we, you and I, your family and mine, your surviving children and mine, feel only aching love and yearning for the human, for those children, images of God and of their parents, left behind in their graves in Egypt, nailed on the cross.
More Necessary Stories here!.
Necessary Stories about Niot:
Other Nights (April 2011)
The Day of His Birth (May 2011)
Sendoff for my Son (August 2010)
Jews, Despite the Holocaust (November 2008)
Help the Niot Project help learning-disabled high school students!