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King in the Subway

King in the Subway


Virtuoso Joshua Bell played his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius in a subway station in Washington D.C. on a cold January morning and over a thousand people walked right by. Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post put him up to it, and Weingarten won a Pulitzer prize for his article.

As for Bell, he got a cold bucket of water on his head. Only two kinds of people stopped to listen: Seven adults and every last kid. Except the kids got pulled away by their mothers. The seven adults got to go to heaven and back. Acoustics in a subway station are fantastic. And hey, if someone told you that you could have a private concert from America's greatest violinist, for free, just stand right there in front of him, would you turn that down?

Three days before, you would have had to pay $100 for a decent seat in a packed Boston Symphony Hall to hear Joshua Bell. Now you could have it for free. I mean, we're talking about D.C., saturated with think tank brains, foreign policy advisors and all those other sorts who would raise their noses to anyone that can't tell a viola from a violin. So why did everybody walk by?

Simple. It's for one of two reasons: Either they don't have the music playing inside them. Or because they are not children.

I read the story in the Washington Post, but it wasn't until the next morning I realized it's meaning. The lights flashed, the heavens opened and it hit me. It's a parable. It's the king in the subway parable.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wanted to explain some Kabbalah about this time of year. Yom Kippur is not a time, it's a season. Something special is happening then, and we farmers of the cosmic soil need to be in tune with that rhythm. Specifically, there are 13 intense beams of light that shine into that world, "thirteen measures of compassion," capable of healing anything and anyone. You want to be in a state to receive and absorb that light. You want to be a step above the world, not working, not eating, in a special place doing special things.

But hold on, says R. Schneur Zalman, those 13 beams don't start shining on Yom Kippur. They don't even start on Rosh Hashanah. They're shining for an entire month before Rosh Hashanah, for the entirety of the month we call Elul. If so, how can we go to work, how can we eat? How can we spend these days as though they were just another day of the week?

So he tells us the story of the king in the field. If he were telling it today, he would talk about the king in the subway station. No, not Elvis. Maybe Joshua Bell.

A parable of a king who is returning to his capital city and all the people of the city come out to greet the king in the field. He receives each one with a friendly countenance and greets all of them with a smile. Then, once he returns to his palace, only the most special individuals can come to see him, and only with permission.

The palace is Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. For those concerts, you need to buy tickets. I don't mean the ones for a seat in your synagogue. I mean, you have to get yourself into a certain state of mind, you've got to be there, cerebrally and spiritually and then you will hear the music. It happens when you're with other Jews and the shofar is blowing, or you are fasting and beating your chest on a Day of At Onement.

But in Elul, the king is in the field. You find him in that place you go inside yourself to break the coarse soil of your soul, to plow there furrows, to plant and nurture seeds of wisdom and beautiful deeds.

If the king is in the field, why aren't the people of the field coming to greet him? Hey, you dumb farmers! How much would you pay to have a personal audience with the king? Why are only the people of the city coming to see him?

Simple. The people in the field are preoccupied with their work. Because the field is a subway station, a place you go to get sucked off in a metal canister to your place of productive labor each day. You've got appointments to make, schedules to keep.

And anyways, the people of the field don't know who the king is that they should recognize him. They didn't buy a ticket. There are no plush seats. Nobody is decked out in Yom Tov clothes and nobody is applauding. So it couldn't be the king. What is a king, after all, but his robes, pomp, splendor and masses exclaiming ahhh and oohh? Only the people of the city, meaning those who see past the pomp and the robes, those who get what a king really is, they can notice him there in the subway. Because they have a touch of the king inside them.

And also, they are not children.

Joshua Bell wanted to know if he would be recognized for who he is, without the concert hall. G‑d, it seems, has the same issue.

John Picarello heard the king. He got it. He heard and he froze in his tracks. Something carried him into position just past the shoeshine stand. Without really making a conscious decision, he delayed the subway ride to work to take a ride to heaven and back.

From Weingarten himself:

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."

So now I have to think: Do I have it forever? Because if I don't, how will I recognize the King awaiting me in my confused inner subway station?

Because, if not, there's only one solution left. I'll have to be a child.

Friends pointed out another link from which you can get the original WP article for free. You can even listen to the (very noisy) audio recording from the subway.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Alex Mx September 1, 2017

Marvelous article this one as well, is even deeper and rich in spiritual meaning. I identify with the way this was written. Because I think that way sometimes of the children begging for coins sometimes (well sometimes they are to give that money to abusive parents) but oh well. Reply

Nan Bonear NEPA September 1, 2017

Love this story!..Thank You for it....yes..i must be a perennial matter who it was..i would have stopped & listened Reply

Anonymous August 30, 2017

Very inspirational, good job! Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman September 15, 2011

For Fred Actually, the point of the story is that the king is without all the splendor and glory of his palace, and so only those who truly identify as his subjects will come to greet him. As the Alter Rebbe writes, "all those who WANT may come and greet him." But you have to want. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 14, 2011

The BOOK of JOB As reign is to rain, tears from above , so it is a fact we all suffer. As we are One so each soul in pain becomes empathically ours and we must work to ease suffering.

I saw Job in the clinic. Steve Jobs of Apple Computers has serious pancreatic cancer. We are all in this together. This solemn time of Elul we contemplate and move towards the orchards for apple picking, for apples and honey knowing about life's bittersweet and trusting our G-d. Reply

Fred earth September 14, 2011

Isn't the point of the King in the Field mashal that all the people RECOGNIZE Him and go to greet him. DId not happen with JB so wrong analogy. If only one guy did than its called G-d in Galus :( Reply

Anonymous September 13, 2011

Safe for Torah No one will really know how important it is in making a good point. This goes beyond just a thank you it sit on the edge of the reflection pool. Humbling ourselves is an experience that Hashem what's the modern Jew to look back on. What does the timeline tell us about what our loved ones and forefathers? We must remember that the past has prepare us the future. Having feelings is no crime in fact it is commanded by Hashem so we may endure and overcome,may shalom be that song we play. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 13, 2011

Gavriel's beautiful post reminds me of the poem, Among School Children, by William Butler Yeats,
"you cannot tell the dancer from the dance".

For me, there is nothing more wonderful than to be able to play an instrument. My fervent wish would be that gift. But I think we all do play and are, played, being instruments of the Divine, and that which plays most beautifully are all songs, both in the Major and Minor Keys.

The ancient Neolithic carvings, do show man as depicted as a violin or guitar in shape, and yet they did not have such instruments, that we know of at that time. But when you think about the metaphoric connects to what you wrote above, Gavriel, and this, there is something most beautiful that can be perceived that is perhaps, ineffable, but a deep truth about us all. Reply

Gavriel Raff September 12, 2011

King in the subway Thinking back i was debating what was more important the violin or the player. Like the old saying goes which came first the chicken or the egg.What really is so important about excelling in any thing? There must be a point to all of this that may somehow connect to us to a even more revealing point,right! Walking back in time i found only one answer and that is the love for our Creator. It really is not so complex as Jews to see eye to eye on this subject. But if you have a point everyone agrees on you really have not come to a conclusion for yourself. Hashem is everything we just need to make a choice on what side we excel in.For our forefathers have stated if there was not string we could not praise His name. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 12, 2011

beneath you in the subway, are many great musicians, struggling to make a living. I know it, because my daughter and her spouse have been street musicians, and recently I heard a wonderful older man playing and he imparted to those listening his great love of the composers and their history, before he played.

It is never 'beneath you" to give, to stop, listen and learn. "It's a long way down", a lyric to a song now playing as I write on Pandora Radio.

Today I atteded a get together lunch for members of Brandeis Bolli, a fabulous learning in retirement program. The event was also in praise of Bernie Reisman and his wife, Elaine, who began this program. Sadly Bernie has Alzheimer's but he is so beloved and it seemed so fitting, as this is his 60th anniversary, to celebrate this couple.

I realize that REISMAN, contains REI which is for KING, and I do see a story that I believe is about us all, contained in the very words we speak. And Bernie, as Elaine explained is Baruch, for he who is blessed. Reply

Chaim Gershon Ir HaKodesh, NY September 11, 2011

Three weeks instead I heard this given over ;) and the Violinist
does not really represent the King in the Field as everyone passed him by.

It's instead the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, in Exile during the three weeks.

In the writings of the Koznitzer Maggid and the Imre Yosef they state that these two periods are connected yet differentiated by the contrasting state of recognition.

Lhavdil when the Superstar walks in the street and is recognized, crowds do come out to greet and this is the King in the Field in Elul and not in Tammuz/Av Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma August 15, 2010

The King in the Subway Station I think it's significant the violinist is named Bell.

Apart from this there are so many apocryphal stories about the unrecognized among us, about those who are left behind, as unimportant, even by the greatest of sages. There is that story of the camel driver carrying on his camel, an important rabbi, who was on his way to meet a great sage, another even more important person. So in his hurry, he treated the camel driver with disrespect. He left him behind in the dust.

But this man, the camel driver, was a man with great soul, far greater than the man the rabbi hurried to see. The moral is deep. The rabbi was blind to what is essential about life. About judging another. About the hidden side of God.

There are people everywhere who are great teachers, great and valuable as any king, decked in all the regalia of kingship.
The man in rags or the woman selling flowers in the subway station, just could be, the Messiah you are seeking and not finding. Reply

Mr. Richard Raff August 12, 2010

King in the subway A new take on string theory, great article Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. i have not forgot about your great writing ability. Reply

Sergio A.Caceres Ft.Worth, TX September 12, 2009

The King I love to hear and read of the holidays. It confirms what I have been feeling. That sense of drawing nearer to THE KING.. A time and season to do just that. A special window within the year to draw down HIS light into our world. Thank YOU for your article! Reply

Anne Kissimmee, Florida USA September 11, 2009

King in the Subway Thank you for a lovely story. I was in the London Underground and came upon a violinist and I gave him some money because he played so beautifully. After I gave him the money he bowed to me very gentlemanly. I always remember that moment. I'm glad I took the time to listen to him. Reply

Yosef Moker Shabbos Chapel Hill, NC September 11, 2009

Amazing Thank you. I heard Rabbi Zalman Bluming in Chapel Hill tell this story on Shabbat. Wonderful. Reply

Leah Lipszyc Simferopol, Crimea via September 11, 2009

Great Article! I'm usually too busy rushing to stop and read anymore, but I'm glad I read this article. Great job! Wishing you and your family a sweet new year, and most of all, that we greet Moshiach even before Rosh Hashana!!! Reply


The King's child detects His presence In actuality, we are all equipped with proper sensors to feel & accept our King, most especially when we are looking for each other, when the KIng alone makes Himself more accessible. What is needed of course is absolutely, positively boot up the system, ENABLE THE SENSORS!!! YES! We are princes & princesses, we are the King's own children, & in fact in the month of Elul we ARE looking for each other, aren't we? Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY September 10, 2009

I guess in reality You Aren't All You Think You Are. Even if the whole 'World' quote on quote recognises you, you're still a nothing so to speak. Not in a bad sense, but in a good sense. Out of his Field of Recognition, Joshua Bell is not Joshua Bell. Joshua Bell is a person just like everybody eles. Nobody's a G-d, Except For G-d. Reply

Anonymous winnipeg, canada September 8, 2009

Yasher koach Of all the commentators I have been reading over the last four years, I have only recently come across you. Well not counting a book i bought two years ago titled " Bringing Heaven Down to Earth ". I will start reading it some time soon. I seem to have picked up on the amazing talent that you have for standing on the shoulders of our great Sages, and playing the notes , scores and tones exquisitely. Please keep up the harmony and melody. It's working.
May you and yours be inscribed in the book of tzaddikim. Reply

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