Spirituality

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

The Secret of the Seventh Light

Tonight is the seventh light of Chanukah, which is also Rosh Chodesh: the new moon in tonight’s sky heralds the start of the new month of Tevet.

(To be technical about it, this month has a two-day Rosh Chodesh, which happens occasionally; the new moon is on the second night, Monday night. Here’s more.) 

I think this night holds one of the secrets of the Chanukah.

Chanukah, ritually speaking, is very simple. For eight nights, starting on the 25th of Kislev, we light menorahs and place them so they can be seen by passers-by. We begin with one light and we increase incrementally until the final night, when the menorah is fully lit with eight flames.

This is the key symbol of Chanukah. Chanukah always falls during these eight days around the new moon that is most closely situated to the winter solstice—that is, days with the least amount of daylight (in the northern hemisphere) and most darkness: the sun is at its most distant point from earth’s axis and the moon is at its most obscured.

During that darkest time of the year—that’s precisely when we have our festival of lighting lights. And light, of course, is a pregnant symbol. It can mean justice, love, faith, peace, hope, wisdom (“enlightenment”), hidden mystical Truth. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1812) taught that while other festivals are celebrated with symbols that are inherently physical (matzah, sukkah, shofar, etc.), only Chanukah is celebrated with a symbol that is inherently spiritual: light.  

And Beit Hillel in the Talmud famously taught that in matters of holiness, our task is to always increase light, and never to decrease it (Shabbat 21b). 

Yet here’s the thing: during the first six nights of Chanukah, we stubbornly light the menorah—even while the world gets darker and darker. We add flames while the light of the moon keeps diminishing.

But tonight there’s a change. Tonight the moon starts to emerge and wax larger. It’s as if to say that our efforts have started to pay off:  The world is starting to follow our persistent lead, inclining towards light rather than darkness. 

Look, the world these days can seem pretty dark—no matter what darkness connotes for you. Things seem hopeless? Nations seem to be careening towards corruption and war instead of integrity and peace? People who said they care about you seem heartless? Feels like greed and materialism are winning out? I know the feeling—I’ve been there.

But the aspiration of Chanukah is that hope wins out in the long term. Keep using a spark to light more lights—and the world slowly, inevitably, will start to incline towards the light.

Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

Fragile Dialogue.jpeg

First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.

Cover.jpeg

A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.

 

Book Cover.jpeg

Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.

 

Check ‘em out!

How to—and How Not to—Prepare for Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a time of deep introspection and reflection. The most solemn day of the year, it is also potentially a day of great liberation: forgiveness and turning can have that effect. (There’s a reason that the Talmud, startlingly, calls Yom Kippur the “most joyful day of the year.”)

Judaism recognized long ago that for Yom Kippur to accomplish all it sets out do demands a certain amount of preparation. Thus, the Ten Days of Teshuvah that commence with Rosh HaShanah are designed to spark a careful sifting through our relationships and all the parts of life that we want to redirect in the year ahead.

Our tradition developed a handful of interesting customs to aid in this preparation. (A custom, or minhag, is to be differentiated from Jewish law, or halakha. They reflect the diverse local color of Jewish life as it has proliferated throughout the millennia across the globe.)  Some of these customs have—mercifully!—disappeared except in certain obscure corners of the Jewish world.

Here are a few interesting ones:

Makkot:  That is to say—lashes. Following the literal letter of Leviticus when it says, “You are to afflict yourselves” (16:31 and 23:27), some Jews historically went beyond fasting. Here’s Scott-Martin Kosofsky, from his Book of Customs (2004):

From this grew the customs of fasting and makkot, the act of flagellation, as a personal confession of sin… Those who do the flogging alternate with those who are flogged. Thirty-nine lashes are given, as the words of V’hu Rahum, the prayer for mercy, are recited three times very slowly by the person administering the lashes. The person who is flogged bows and recites the confession saying one word at each lashing. If specific sins come to mind, these should be mentioned quietly, below the breath.

Kapparot: The most notorious Yom Kippur custom involves taking a live fowl (a rooster for a man and a hen for a woman) and swinging it over one’s head while reciting, “This is my atonement, this is my ransom, this is my substitute.” Afterwards, the chicken is slaughtered and either it or its monetary value is donated as Tzedakah. The tradition of kapparot (better, the Yiddish kappores, since it is an Ashkenazi custom) functions similarly to the Tashlich ceremony: symbolically casting one’s sins onto a third party and sending it away.

Kappores arose in Europe and has been controversial throughout its history. The Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the 16th Century law code the Shulchan Aruch, insisted “it is a practice that should be prevented” (Orach Chayim 605:1). The Maharil, a 14th-15th century German sage, was more sympathetic, but offered an interesting caveat:

There are places where the kappores themselves are given to the poor But the custom in the Rhine district, where the price of the kappora is given to the poor, is a better one, for the poor man is not ashamed to accept the money. But when the poor man is given the fowl itself, he says to himself: First this person put his sins onto this fowl, and now he humiliates me by giving it to me!

The custom of kappores can still be found in some Chasidic communities. Chabad seems especially big on retaining and promoting it. In 2016, an activist group called United Poultry Concerns, trying to stem the practice, filed a lawsuit in California against Chabad of Irvine. The case was dismissed; it did not rise to California’s compelling state interest to infringe on religious liberty in this instance. Still, one can see why those concerned about animal rights are disturbed by the persistence of this custom.

Mikveh:  Immersion by men in a mikveh—a ritual bath for spiritual purification—is unusual but not unheard of. (Mikveh is a Mitzvah for women after their menstrual cycles, but is not commanded of men.) Immersion as a spiritual custom has had a popular reemergence in liberal communities in recent years, thanks in no small part to places like Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA.

Daniel Sperber, the preeminent scholar of regional Jewish customs around the world, has noted some interesting aspects of the practice of immersing before Yom Kippur. In his opus Minhagei Yisrael (available abridged in English as Why Jews Do What They Do, 1999), he explains that the custom arose in medieval Germany to immerse three times before Yom Kippur. This was based on numerology: in one explanation, the phrase mikveh yisrael appears in the Bible three times; in another, the Bible refers three times (Ezekiel 36:25, Leviticus 16:19 and 16:30) to God’s purification of Israel. An alternative explanation connects the three immersions to the three appearances of the word “purify” in Leviticus 16:19 and 30.

Seudat Mafseket:  A ritual meal that precedes the fast. The Talmud itself emphasizes the importance of having a good meal in preparation for fasting. Rashi, commenting on the discussion in Yoma 81b, writes:

The feasting on the ninth of Tishrei [the day before Yom Kippur] helps to emphasize the solemnity and the self-affliction due the next day. The more feasting on the eve of Yom Kippur, the more pronounced the affliction on the day itself.

It’s more than academic to look at the traditions that arose around preparing for Yom Kippur. Some of those customs are dead-ends for us (I won’t be joining you for lashing with makkot this week, and my own experiences with kappores largely have been nauseating, not redemptive).  Some—like rediscovering the mikveh and making the meal before the fast special—readily complement our spiritual condition. 

The point is that Yom Kippur, in order to “work,” demands preparation. The essential thing is not the custom per se, but the internal, spiritual result.  They are intended to catalyze the process by which we ask face deep questions:

What relationships are most precious to me, and how will I tend to them better in the year ahead?

Whom have I hurt? Who is waiting to hear my apology?

To what degree am I living up to my responsibilities—to myself, my family, my people, my world?

What makes me so angry about the world that I want to scream—and what can I, in fact, do about it?

How am I going to stop screwing up?

If we can be honest about the questions, and start to approach the answers, then all the preparations for Yom Kippur have done their jobs.

Kappores sign.jpg

Gleanings in the Fields of Israel

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.Leviticus 19:9

 We came to the land to build and to be built [livnot u’l’hibanot] – Early Zionist Song & Slogan

The Torah created a remarkable framework for caring for the most desperate and hurting people in the ancient world.  At a time when wealth was your land, animals, and crops, the Torah stipulated that a certain part of your fields didn’t in fact belong to you at all, but belonged to people who were poor, needy, and homeless. These are called:

Pe’ahthe corners of the field;

Leket – the gleanings that were dropped by those harvesting the field the first time around, or were neglected to be harvested;

Shichechaparts of the field that had inadvertently been forgotten to be harvested.

Each of these belonged to poor people, who had the right to come and take what belonged to them. The most well-known illustration of this from the Tanach is found in the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, as Ruth herself gathered grain for herself and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi.  This is what social justice meant in the days of the Bible. As later generations of Jews (and Christians) became urban and less agriculturally-based, they took these ideals and transformed them to systems based on money (i.e., the laws of Tzedakah). But it all starts with food.

Leket (“gleanings”) is alive and well today. I spent the morning with other volunteers in fields operated by Leket Israel, harvesting daloriyot (butternut squash).  Leket Israel relies on a handful of employees and hundreds of volunteers to glean vegetables in their fields and then distribute it to hundreds of organizations around the country that get food to people in need. 

Standing in the hot Middle Eastern summer sun this morning, I was thinking of Ruth the Moabite and I was singing.  I was reminded that harvesting these squash was a deeply spiritual exercise, one that the early pioneers of this land understood well when they harvested their fields and sang “Livnot u’L’hibanot: We’ll build and simultaneously build authentic selves, new identities.”

One stereotype of meditation is that it entails sitting crosslegged in silence. But many meditative practices involve mindful, meditative movement. For instance, dance, exercise, flyfishing, hiking – any of this can become focused spiritual disciplines (but they aren’t automatically so. They have to be performed mindfully.) As I look to the ground to identify a ripe squash, break it from its stem, put it in my basket, and walk on to the next one, a begin to develop a rhythm.  Identify, break off, basket, walk on.  Again. Again. The repetition lifts me. The sun is hot; the field goes on forever. And my basket gets more and more full, until it has to get emptied. This continues for two hours, with water breaks.  I get very into it, losing myself to the rhythms of the gleaning.

The two hours fly by incredibly quickly. I look to the bin that I’ve filled with squash and the volunteer coordinator (she was a Temple Executive Director in Arizona where she went by the slave name “Nancy”, before she made Aliyah, came to Leket, and became “Nechama”) looks at my accomplishments.  “You’ve gleaned 400 kilos of squash,” she tells me, “Enough to feed 100 people.”

But the fields are so big, and she explains that most summers she has hundreds of volunteers gleaning it all.  The war this summer has scared many of them away; this morning there are just a few of us.  She says that much of this field will never get gleaned this summer, and the vegetables will probably rot on the vines.  There’s just too many vegetables and not enough hands to harvest them. We’ll do the best we can – but hungry people will be another set of victims of the war.