Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah


The Kabbalah of Freddie Mercury

When I was in high school I used to play in a rock band. I played bass guitar, and we mostly played popular songs of leading rock bands such as Guns and Roses, Metallica and Queen. I was reminded of all this last Monday, when I read about the fantastic rock concert which the band Queen gave in Tel Aviv last week, with some fifty thousand fans cheering in the excruciating humidity of Israel’s coastal summer.

The band played all its greatest hits, including ”We Will Rock You”, ”We Are the Champions” and ”Bohemian Rhapsody”. Back in the 1980’s, when the band was at its zenith of success, the most charismatic and central figure of the band was its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, a Persian Zoroastrian born as Farrokh Bulsara in current-day Tanzania.

Following Mercury’s untimely death in 1991 at the age of 45, the band lost its vitality and leading spirit, in a manner not dissimilar to the Beatles following the murder of John Lennon in 1980.

Of all of Queen’s hits, my favourite one is ”Show Must Go On”. This dramatic and intense song addresses with its sombre melody some of the most penetrating questions regarding the nature of existence and the human condition. ”Show Must Go On” was the last song which Mercury recorded months before his death from HIV.

Mercury was so ill and frail at this point in his life, that those around him in the recording studio did not think that he would actually be equal to the task of singing and recording the song. But astonishingly, with the last remnants and shreds of energy that he had left in him, Mercury manged to sing and record the song.

The lyrics of the song audaciously tackle the ”biggest questions” that any thinking person would ask about the enigma of existence and the purpose of life. The fiery lyrics commence with the following verse:

”Empty spaces – what are we living for. Abandoned places – I guess we know the score. On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for…”

To be sure, these profound meditations about the daunting awesomeness of the infinity of the universe (those ”Empty spaces”), as well as the minuteness and ephemeral nature of man, and the seeming futility of all human endeavours, were pondered upon and tackled by philosophers and artists since the dawn of human civilization.

Albert Camus, a 20th century leading writer and thinker, defined life as ”An absurd”. For Camus, the human person is akin to the tortured figure of Sisyphus in Greek mythology, a figure condemned to roll a heavy rock unto a mountaintop, only to see it roll down again, thereby forcing him to re-commence this tedious and fruitless task time and again, ad infinitum.

For Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century French mathematician who ended up becoming a devout Catholic, these ”empty spaces” about which Mercury sang were petrifying, as he felt swallowed and overwhelmed by virtue of feeling ”Engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces”.

And for the 18th century philosopher Emmanuel Kant, arguably the most important thinker in modern times, these ”empty spaces” prompted what he called ”the experience of the sublime”, a sense of awe and bewilderment that we undergo once confronted with the boundless, gigantic and infinite expanses of the universe.

But what about Judaism? How does our tradition confront the silence of cosmic infinitude, of these “empty spaces”?

In Judaism, we regard the infinity of the cosmos as intimating the Almighty’s “Or Einsof”/”Infinite Light”, which permeates, encompasses and enlivens all worlds. And when we stand before those “empty spaces” about which Mercury sang practically on his deathbed, we are to be spiritually engulfed by “Yira’at Haromemut” – which is the awe and wonderment of God’s sublimity and loftiness, which we experience once we gaze at the unfathomable expanses of being. In the undying and timeless words of Isaiah, it is when we ask ourselves:

“Elevate your eyes above, and behold: Who created all of this?” (Isaiah 40:26)

In privileged and cherished moments, when we give ourselves a reprieve from the minutiae and tyranny of the mundane with all its petty and ephemeral concerns, then we are able to behold the beauty and majesty of everything around us. We are able to be One with everything around us. This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had in mind, when he spoke about looking at the world from a fresh and child-like perspective of “radical amazement”, with spiritual naiveté and with a purity of spirit.

Indeed, that’s the theological prism which we articulate in unison during prayer, during the repetition of the Amidah, with the words “melo kol ha’aretz kvodo” (the entire world bespeaks of G-d’s omnipresence).

That is, in a nutshell, the Jewish lens to approaching those infinite “empty spaces” which Mercury sings about: We approach them with awe and with fear and with trembling, with trepidation and with wonderment, but also – we approach them with longings and with yearnings, with jubilation and with spiritual Eros and desire.

As to the second component of Mercury’s question, namely: “What are we looking for?” The answer is to be found in Psalm 27, which we recite during this spiritual season every morning and night. We wish “To do that which is pleasant in the eyes of the Almighty, and to behold his exquisite Chamber”.

We are looking for mystical unity with the essence of all Being. We are thirsting to nullify our illusory sense of separateness and merge into the harmonious infinity which surrounds us, like a cup of water which is poured into the vastness of the ocean, thereby obliterating itself in its massiveness.

What are we looking for? We are looking for an answer to the three most cardinal questions of life, namely: Who am I? Where do I belong? How shall I live?

The Jewish answer to these question is to be found in our people’s GPS/ existential manual (Torah in the Aramaic is called Orayta – which means Instruction).

We are looking for soulfulness, for true and lasting intimacy, we are looking for enduring love with people, and with G-d Almighty.

We are looking for the redemption of man from his social and cosmic solitude. We are looking for a viable perspective which sees humanity as more than just mere cosmic dust, and which regards Homo sapiens as more than just sophisticated mammals who share 97% of their DNA with chimpanzees. We are looking for a dialogue with Eternity. We are looking for “Torat Emmet and Chayey Olam” – we are seeking out ontological Truth, and a glimpse of the Perpetual, even though we are but a fleeting shadow on the face of Eternity. We are looking for that which is beyond words and beyond human cognition. We are looking for our Home. We are looking for God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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