A summer evening outdoors amongst the towering evergreens of Vancouver is somewhere next to paradise. That's where Mel must have been coming from—Mel, the viola teacher—as he meandered towards me in the most mystical mood I've ever caught him in.

"Tzvi!" he announced, "I've figured out why Jews are the best musicians."

I was a little concerned about his announcement. Us Vancouver Jews living on the globe's edge are wont to be suspect of anything that could be interpreted as ethnocentricity (a.k.a. 'Jewish pride'). But I figured this could be okay. Mel was, after all, an old Vancouverite himself—old enough to be my father.

I also recalled the words of my Anglican friend, Dukes, the musicologist. I had asked him, "Why are there so many great Jewish violinists?" Dukes stared at me like I was a tea leaf just come alive out of his mug. As I speculated on what might be so outrageously pedestrian about my query, he replied, "You mean, there are great violinists who are not Jewish?"

For me, that made Mel's intellectual investigation kosher. So I listened on.

"It's because they don't worship idols."

Now this was going too far. Mel came to shul once in a while, but a theologian? "Mel," I said, "You're going to have to explain that one to me."

Mel was staring out at where the sunset had been and crimson clouds were still burning over the Georgia Strait. Musicians get that way—they start to speak, and then they're lost in some mystical journey all their own.

He returned and started talking again, "We're performing Bloch's Baal Shem suite over in Nanaimo—with the whole orchestra." So much for my answer. It's mystery-land forever on the idols issue, I figured.

"Tzvi, I worked hard on that suite. We worked months, but finally I understand it. You have to work real hard to understand what does he want, what does the music want to say."

"Like that sunset." (The sunset was gone, but I wasn't about to point that out.) "You stop and you look at the sunset and you see something there. But you can't say what it is. It's not the sunset. It's something else, but if you say it, that's not it. It's something inside you that the sunset hits."

He turned towards me, fingers playing his viola in the air. "The music is the same. The notes are only guidelines. People who play the notes are not musicians."

"Oh really?" I said, "Then what are they?"

"They're idolaters."

"Oh. What gods do they worship?"

"Notes. They worship notes."

You've got to understand: Mel's not the type of guy to get this philosophical. It was like he knew something, but he hadn't even articulated it to himself yet. He could tell it to you on his viola, but that wouldn't help much. Mel's a musician, see.

"You know what they do?"

I could feel a tirade on its way.

"They prostitute the music!"

First idolatry, now licentiousness. Rabbi Mel.

"They say, 'If I play it like this, boy will that get them!' That's not music! That's ego! You're playing yourself, not the music!"

"But Mel," I interrupted, "I thought the musician was supposed to express himself in his music."

"Bahh!" Mel turned away. I'd blown it. But then he had rachmanus and looked back at me. Or maybe he just forgot about it.

"Tzvi, the best teacher I had was Yascha Heifetz. Everybody will tell you, he's the best teacher. But I learnt only one thing from him. Because after you get rid of all the garbage movements,"--his fingers flickered in the air again--"then you can get as good as you want. But there's one thing he really taught me. He taught me that being a musician is three things:"

I waited.

He stabbed his viola finger into the air. "Focus. Focus. Focus," he said.

"Focus on what?" I asked. I had to ask something. "On playing the notes? On the music? On your feelings about it?"

"No. Not on anything to do with you. No ego. That's a musician. Not on the notes either. That's an idolater. Focus on what the music is saying."

I thought I was getting it, until he threw this curve-ball: "And if you ever think you've got what the music is saying, then you've lost it. You're an idolater again."

"But Mel," I protested, "Music is saying something! Composers are saying something with their music! A musician has to know what they're saying!"

Now he looked at me very seriously, like this was the whole lesson of life and music and everything else important. He said, "Music is something that has no notes coming out in a thousand different notes. The musician, his soul is there with the music, not with the notes. So he can make it come out with all those notes and nuances, because he knows that's not the real music. The real music has no sound. The musician gives formlessness form and keeps it formless."

We both looked out at the sunset that wasn't there, at the trees we could hardly see, at the numinous clouds hiding the stars that must be twinkling up there. The chirping of the robins, too, was conspicuous by its absence. There's definitely beauty in things you cannot see. On a night like this, I thought, you can feel there's something unknowable behind all that we know. Something that's not the sun, not the trees, not the stars. Something without form expressing itself in endless music. It's only the ego that makes us idolaters.

Abraham was a real musician. A Jewish musician. He smashed all the idols in his father's house. The way Mel has taught me to look at the sun and the stars, that must be how Abraham saw them then.

I told Mel something he liked, something I had read in the Toras Chayim of Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch: "The mission of a Jew and Torah is to teach the world to sing in harmony." That was long before the Coca Cola ad, I joked.

"I want to teach the world to be musicians," Mel said, quite seriously. "And see the whole world like a musician plays music."

"Then we'll have smashed all the idols."