There’s a Hasidic story about a man who lived in Poland, renowned across the country for the fervor of his prayers. So stirring was his reputation that the Baal Shem Tov decided one day to travel great lengths to see this spiritual power for himself. After making a long journey, he found a shepherd boy standing on a hilltop, holding a prayerbook and calling out letters one by one. “Bet! Reish! Vav!” he cried out, on and on, and then, “Master of the Universe, this is all I can do. You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, arrange the letters in the proper way.”
When I first heard this story, I recognized myself in it, and countless people I know: those of us for whom Jewish education and Jewish life has not always been accessible. Those of us filled with a hunger to express ourselves, to cry out in prayer, and to contribute, who didn’t start out knowing how to piece the letters together —metaphorically or literally. I’ve devoted my adult life and my rabbinate to creating spaces where people like me, like this fabled shepherd boy, can access Jewish tradition and thrive. Because, as this story reminds us, brilliance and creativity aren’t dependent on literacy. God receives us as we are, judging not our level of knowledge but rather the depths of our hearts. And as it turns out, one key to finding that space is through music.