Acharei Kedoshim: A Holy People

In this episode we wade into the challenges presented by these Torah readings. At the end, to lighten the mood, I read one of my stories 🙂

This week has been another crazy week and I’m pedal to the metal so sorry for any production shortcomings. Most of the time for these podcasts is taken up with post-recording editing. I’m going to skip that entirely this week.

That said, I’ve had some very positive feedback on this series so I’m going to try to keep it going.

Let’s open with the offerings to attain atonement on Yom Kippur – the day of atonement.

To begin to understand the rituals, we have to look at the concept of atonement itself.

The first use of the word Kaper isn’t about sin at all. Instead, it refers to pitch used by Noach to protect his Ark (Gen 6:14). Kaper here is both a sealant and the act of sealing.

This idea of Kaper as a sealant extends. We give a half-shekel as a Kaper before the census (Ex. 30:15). It seals us from the dangers of being held up before G-d.

The Aron has a Kaper, with Keruvim (or angels) on it (Ex. 26:34). Those angels were last seen closing off access to the Garden of Eden. They seal the Aron and the Ten Commandments from intrusion. They enable it to be timeless.

The offerings don’t only Kaper the people, they Kaper the Altar, the Mishkan and the Holy of Holies itself (Lv. 16:33). Why would the Altar and Holy of Holies need atonement? They don’t. But they need to be sealed against spiritual corrosion.

When a man commits manslaughter, the family of the deceased can ask for a Kaper (Ex. 21:30). It is a payment to seal him against their vengeance.

Finally, when Moshe does Kaper for the people after the sin of the calf, he doesn’t wipe away or cover up the sin. He just – forever – prevents it from overwhelming the people (Ex. 32:30).

So we have this idea of Kaper as a spiritual sealant.

It is often associated with a particular kind of sin: Chata.

What is Chata? Well, when Joseph’s brothers beg him not to retaliate after Yaacov dies (Gn. 50:17), they define Chata as doing evil. Where good is an act of creation, Chata is an act of destruction.

But Chata is more than an act, it also represents a destructive impulse. The first use of the word for Chata is in regard to Cain. The text (Gen 4:7) says “By the opening, Chata is expectantly waiting and it desires you…”  Chata has personification. It has desires. When you sin, you are serving it. This will have interesting parallels when we get to Az-Azel.

So how does Chata strike? Well, it is waiting by the ‘opening’. Chata enters when it gets the chance.

When we Kaper against Chata – we seal the opening so that sin cannot enter.

And if sin does enter? Then it is transformed to something else. Avon. This is also translated as sin, but it is regularly associated with another word. It is a sin you have to bear. It is a weight that holds you down. The phrase “bear your iniquity” is relate to Avon, not Chata itself.

The act of Kaper protects us from the spiritual weight of Avon.

We see this in the case of Cain. He sins and then says he can not bear the weight of Avon.

We have a few steps. The most prominent involves Az-Azel. With the ritual of Az-Azel, there are two goats (Seirim). In many places, goats represent the people. But they also represent the physical. Seir is hairy and is associated with Esav.

One goat is offered to G-d – as a Kaper to Yud-Key-Vav-Kay (Lv. 16:9)– the name of G-d that incorporates the past, present, and future. It seals the people against spiritual corrosion and becomes a part of the timeless through its sacrifice. It’s Korban, literally drawing close. By dedicating the physical to the timeless, we become a part of it.

The other Seir is given its own Kaper. It is stood before G-d, sealing it against the corrosion of the people’s sins. Then the people’s sins (Avonot) are placed on it and it is sent to Azazel (Lv: 16:10). Az Azel literally means ‘goat of disappearance.’ The word Azel can be translated as disappearance or being used up. This goat is sent to emptiness and non-existence.

The message for me is that if we dedicate our lives to Emptiness then we simply cease to exist.

This contrast is an object lesson for us.

We all die, but we can either dedicate our potential to G-d and be part of the timeless or we can dedicate ourselves to Nothing (with a Capital N) and vanish as if we never existed.

As part of this ritual, the Kohen Gadol approaches the Kadosh Kedoshim – the holy of Holies. He takes fiery coals and incense and creates a cloud of incense around the Aron so that he doesn’t die. A few people at last week’s Shabbat Shiur pointed out that workmen can enter the Kadosh Kedoshim without incense and they don’t die. This cloud is only necessary during a time of judgement.

If we go back to our Mishkan design, the three articles represent three appearances of Hashem. The Menorah is the burning bush and represents G-d’s unique ability to create without destruction. The Shulchan is the revelation of the Maanah and represents Hashem’s faithfulness to us. And the Aron holds the Ten Commandments and represents the revelation of Har Sinai and Hashem’s Law.

When you are facing judgement and you stand before the representation of Law, there is a great deal to fear. How do you counteract the strict reality of law?

Well, smell is associated with emotion. Smells can bring us back decades and restore old feelings. Smells have a powerful and underappreciated emotional impact on us. We barely understand it. The shoresh for smell is Re’ach or Ruach. It means both smell and spirit.

When you create a cloud of incense over the Aron, you are clouding harsh judgement with emotion.

I rarely play the particular kind of word game I’m about to play, but the word for mercy is Rachem. This shows up in all sorts of contexts. One of the most relevant is when the first born are called Peter Rechem – the release of kindness.

Rechem is a single three letter root. But we could see it as two roots brought together.

Ruach or Re’ach – either spirit or smell. And Chaim – for life.

When Hashem releasing kindness, he is granting the spirit of life.

And when G-d acts with mercy on the day of Judgement, he is granting the spirit of life.

The Torah reading doesn’t end with Az-Azel. It is followed by a vast canvas of commandments.

The first is that if we are in the camp – if we are close to the Mishkan – we must bring our offerings there. If we kill an animal and don’t bring it, then it is akin to murder. This sets the tone for the rest of the reading. We had an opportunity for an animal to be used for the highest of purposes and we neglected it. Likewise, when we are close to G-d we have an opportunity to use our lives for the highest purpose.

We cannot neglect it.

The second command is not to offer our sacrifices to demons. But the word used for demons is Seirim. It is the same word used for the goats we offer to G-d and Az-Azel. We don’t offer our animals to simply physical purposes. Again, we do not waste our opportunities.

The third commandment is about blood. It has a purpose – to provide atonement for our physical souls. Eating it, making it a part of our physical selves, is a destructive act. We lower it by eating it. We destroy instead of lifting up.

And the fourth command is about eating a torn or dead bird. Here we have only an association with loss and destruction. If we commit this sin, we have to be spiritually cleansed. If we aren’t, then we carry this iniquity.

The fifth set of commands goes one step further. They concern uncovering the Ervat of those close to you. Ervat is often translated as simple nakedness. But there is another, more revealing, understanding. When Yosef’s brothers come to the land, he accuses them of being spies and seeking out the Ervat of the land. They aren’t seeking its nakedness. They are seeking its weakness.

To be naked is to be exposed. To have your physical flaws and limits revealed.

We can uncover nakedness, but not the nakedness of those close to us. When we reveal their weaknesses, we reveal our own. It contaminates us by making us aware of our own limits.

There is a process here. When we are close to G-d, we don’t neglect our opportunities, we don’t waste spiritual potential, we distance ourselves from loss and destruction and we conceal our own weakness – even from ourselves.

The focus is on a positive energy and positive presentation. The Kohanim cover up their weakness to approach Hashem. In the presence of the Mishkan, in a less direct way, we do the same.

We imitate G-d.

Parshat Kedoshim carries this idea further – into the realm of holiness itself. We are to be Holy because Hashem is Holy. Holiness is a kind of timelessness – that YKVK distinction from Az-Azel. To achieve that timelessness of holiness , we have to overcome the deleterious effects of time. We spit in the face of these effects – we make believe as if they don’t exist.

G-d is timeless and so we imitate him.

Parshat Kedoshim thus starts with commandments not to let sacrificial meat begin to rot and to leave gleanings for the poor so they don’t starve – with time.

We don’t let time affect our spiritual or physical reality.

These two commandments set the tone, but they aren’t the end of the reading. It continues with commandments meant to stop that natural rot from permeating other aspects of our lives.

First is society. We don’t cheat, leave stumbling blocks for the blind, pervert justice, gossip or bear grudges. This is the broadest sort of protection social against rot.

Second is nature. Even though cross-breeding will naturally occur, we don’t hasten it. This isn’t rot per se, but it is natural change. We don’t accelerate natural change. We have Kadosh and Chol. Chol is change. It happens. We cause it for six days a week. But we don’t accelerate it in areas defined on a divine timeline – and nature is one of those.

Third is marriage. The case chosen here is unusual. If a man sleeps with a slave woman who is engaged to another man, she can’t be held responsible because she isn’t free. But he isn’t deeply condemned either. He has to bring an offering for kaper. A fear of G-d offering.  The offering of a ram.

From Parshat Mishpatim there is a suggestion that the woman is sold by her father with marriage being the point. If she is not married to the buyer, to his son or if the buyer fails to provide for her then she is freed. The slaveholder is not allowed to sell her to another man. So how can she be engaged to another man? She must have gotten engaged independently of the buyer or her father. So the law respects that she is not in control when it comes to her owner – but she is control in another respect. The slaveholder would normally have the right to marry her, but she has cut that off.

Her self designation trumps the actions of her father and the buyer. The idea of a slavewoman being sold for marriage is deeply, deeply, disturbing idea. This little section seems to be suggesting that while there was this terrible idea of slavewomen being sold by their fathers for marriage, the woman is not entirely powerless. If she were, you’d end up with exactly the sort of rot we’re protecting against. You’d end up with entirely powerless women, fundamentally broken families and deep bitterness running throughout society.

Families are the building blocks of the people. There are limits to how much misfortune can end up defining them. What about the man? He isn’t condemned to die either. In theory, he bought a wife from a willing father. In that society, he had certain rights. He isn’t allowed to sleep with the woman, but the punishment for doing so is limited. Fear of G-d, represented by the offering of a ram, serves to remind him that his rights are in fact trumped by more important realities.

Of course, the woman does end up having had likely unwilling relations with a man who owns her. At least for a time. She ends up possibly having been raped. She is innocent of any crime, but a ram offering by her attacker probably offers little in the way of solace. Nonetheless, in the case of these crossed realities, we don’t let either reality – either the legal reality of the woman or the legal reality of the buyer – destroy things. We put a cap on both. Nobody is put to death.

All parties, eventually, and perhaps despite a great deal of pain, have a way out.

The fourth area of protection against natural rot concerns our relationship with G-d. It starts modestly, with the concept that we can’t eat forbidden fruit for three years. We then give the fourth year’s produce as praise to Hashem. As we see throughout Chumash, trees are a gift from G-d. If we treat that gift like a crop, we might imagine it is our own work product. By not eating for three years, we separate our planting from our harvesting. By designating the fourth year’s produce as a Hallel to Hashem, we further emphasize that the tree is a divine gift.

We are protecting our recognition of G-d’s gifts.

The fifth area in which we protect against rot is within ourselves. A fundamental part of our relationship with G-d is not letting ourselves become connected to loss, emptiness or destruction. This is why we don’t practice various sorts of sorcery or damage ourselves to remember the dead. This is why we can’t undermine our daughters by turning them into prostitutes, forget Shabbat, worship either the tradition (Ov) or knowledge (Yidoni), disrespect the old or the convert, pervert measurements and confuse what G-d wants by sacrificing the future to the perversion of Him known as Moloch.

We don’t let ourselves become connected to loss, emptiness or destruction, personally.

This emphasis on ourselves continues.

There is a reminder to sanctify ourselves and thus be sanctified, because the timeless G-d (represented by YKVK) is our higher power (represented by elokim).

It is in this personal vein that we get to the most controversial part of the readings. It starts with a prohibition on cursing our parents – this sort of curse separates us from the past and rots a society. But then we are forbidden from various types of sexual relationships.

Before we get into this section, I want a little context.

In modern times, we put heavy focus on the concept of love. But that concept is not the core concern of the Chumash. In the Chumash, love is a mixed bag. If you have love of Hashem or Hashem loves you – that is all good. But love between people is, eh…. Something else. The first example of love is that Avraham loves Yitzchak his son. Through the Akeidah, he is driven to show that his fear of G-d trumps his love of his own son. Yitzchak loves Rivka and Esav – but those relationships are focused on the physical and are clearly imperfect. Finally, Shchem loves Dinah. Whatever our position on the actions of Yaacov’s sons, this love is not honored in the Torah.

What is love in the Chumash? Again and again, it is associated with listening to another and desiring to draw close. Shchem’s nefesh was drawn to Dinah and he loved her.

We are told:

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ

“To love Hashem your G-d, to hearken to His voice and to cling to Him.”

These three concepts are intertwined gain and again. This is why love of your fellow is so dangerous. Instead of listening to G-d, instead of being drawn to G-d, you are drawn elsewhere and listen to other influences.

Love comes up in this reading. Vehahavta Lreicha Camocha – you shall love your fellow like yourself.

This is read as an almost limitless thing. And it would be if love were sacrifice. We should be willing to sacrifice for others just as we would for ourselves. But if love means wanting to draw close and harken? Then this is also a limiting statement. We listen to our fellow, we are drawn to our fellow – but no more than we should listen, or be drawn to, ourselves.

Notably, in the Chumash, love is not about sacrifice. That is a deeply Christian concept represented by the crucifixion. Christianity draws a parallel with the Akeidah – the lamb Yitzchak realizes is missing is Jesus. In this light, one way of reading the crucifixion is that G-d’s love of man trumps the love of his son and – as the son is the father – his own fears.

Read this way, the crucifixion is a reversal of the Akeidah. Love conquers fear.

Love of man conquers fear.

But in the Chumash, love and fear of G-d conquers love of man. The priorities are consistent.

Relationships then, have a limit. Throughout this reading we see, time and again, that our purpose is to use every creative and holy opportunity while limiting and covering our own weakness. When we kaper, we banish our weakness. We don’t celebrate it and lift it up. Our role – our holy role – trumps our own desires or the desires of others.

In these readings, our desires are limited. Not that they aren’t natural. Most of the relationships end with condemnation “because their blood is in them.” Blood has been described, in these reading, as the animating force of our bodies. Those relationships condemned for this reason are being condemned not because they are unnatural – but because they are natural.

They are just associated with lost creative opportunity.

Again, love and fear of G-d trumps our love of ourselves or our love of our fellow.

It is interesting that those situations that are not genetically driven are punished even more aggressively. There is no excuse, in a way, for those actions. There is no drive for them, other than depravity. Sleeping with a mother and daughter is cast into this category. There is another category – siblings. This is called kindness in Torah – but it is misplaced kindness. It is misplaced love.

All of these commandments are put into the context of the separation of the Jewish people when close to G-d. These commandments aren’t normal. They set us apart, in this situation

In a way, all of these commandments remain under the long shadow of Nadav and Avihu. When we are in the presence of G-d, fear of G-d becomes an ever more important and dominating feature of our reality. This goes back to the commandment to offer animals in the Mishkan if we are close to it.

With the Mishkan, in the presence of G-d, we have an opportunity to use our lives for the highest of purposes. If we neglect those opportunities – then the repercussions are far greater than they would, or even should, otherwise be.

The reading ends with another reminder to distance our physical selves from unclean animals. Mere association can taint us. The final command regards Ov and Yidoni. We don’t worship Ov – from the root of father – or Yidoni – from the root of knowledge.

Instead, again and again, we must remember that we are close to G-d and that G-d should be the focus of our relationship.

I’m going to add a story this week. It just felt particularly relevant.

The Contraband

You can imagine a generic suburban bar, trying to be cool and grungy, right? You have the spotless floors done up in some dirty-looking pattern. You have mass-manufactured memorabilia lining the walls. Memorabilia which is identical to that on every other wall in the entire chain. You have the smell of food that isn’t really too greasy filling the air. And, most importantly, you have the people. They aren’t grungy or beat up. They are safely middle-class: clean, drug-free, well-fed and well-dressed.

You can imagine that, right?

This wasn’t that place.

I was downtown, but I wasn’t in the classy part of downtown. Instead, I was on a stage in the worst bar I’d ever seen. The floors were genuinely dirty and there were no memorabilia on the walls. The place smelled like a mix of mold, sugary soda, body odor, and urine. It made its money on the cover charge: $3 to get in. The ‘guests’ were paying for access to the bathrooms. Not just as bathrooms, although that was useful to them. They were really paying for a place to shoot up. You could see it in their eyes as they emerged from the stalls; tiny pupils revealed the freshly deposited opiates in their bloodstreams. In a unique twist, there wasn’t even alcohol on tap. The place had to be able to welcome all ages. Homeless parents didn’t want to leave their kids outside while they did drugs in the bathrooms. They loved their kids.

The place had live music. They didn’t pay the acts much though; they weren’t the point. They were only there so the clientele could shuffle like zombies in the back of the room and the management could pretend they weren’t just a clearing house for those buying and selling illicit substances. Of course, it was all done with a wink. After all, the place was called The Contraband.

But, they had to keep up the front. So, they had music. And, that night, the music was me.

I was a violist of all things. I went to college for it. I graduated with honors. I had perfect technique. I was almost robotic in my capabilities. And I’d tried to make a career out of it. My parents thought I was ridiculous. I came from one of those firmly middle-class backgrounds. I was supposed to become a professional of some sort; a respectable woman. I certainly wasn’t meant to end up in a place like this.

But I had ended up here. And the reason was simple: I didn’t have a voice. I could play a mean viola, and I could play pretty much any genre. But all I had was technique. I didn’t have any soul. And so, I graduated from college and I did everything I could for a gig. I played alternative viola in those middle-class bars. I played country viola (just think of a deep fiddle) in the country. And then I lost those gigs; I didn’t fire people’s imaginations. And so now I was playing punk viola – my instrument shouting at the room – in places like these.

In the classier places, people would talk about my technique. Even here, at The Contraband, they’d come out of their stupor long enough to ask me where I’d learned how to play. But nobody ever said I spoke to them through my music. I was just a touch of light entertainment. A robot could have done what I was doing.

That was why I knew, when men talked to me, that they weren’t interested in my music. And when men in a place like this talked to me, they scared me. Not that The Contraband was unique in that way. I couldn’t trust any of the men I met when I worked. When I was working the middle-class bars, the men tended to be married. And here? Here, they tended to be dangerous.

But that night was different. That night, I was thrashing my viola. And, sitting in the back of the room, was a skeleton of a man nursing a soda from the skeleton of a ‘dry’ bar. He was thin, desperately thin. His glasses were way out of fashion. His clothes were cheap, ill-fitting and old. Not like he was poor, but like he didn’t care about how others saw him.

And he was staring at me.

I hadn’t noticed him at first. At first, he’d blended into the crowd. But when I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He was enthralled by me and I was enthralled by him. After the set, he didn’t come up to me. And I didn’t go to him. And when I finished for the night, he just wasn’t there. He’d vanished completely. I asked others about him, but nobody had noticed that he was there.

I had another gig, in another place, a few days later. It was a step up (it was hard to do anything other than a step up). But The Contraband wanted me too. I was good cover – punk viola made it look like they were about the music. And I decided, there and then, to go back. I wanted to see that skeleton of a man.

I started my act and then, at some point, I looked up and he was there again. Staring at me just like he had before. He was frightening in his intensity. I knew I should have avoided him. But I couldn’t help myself. After my set I walked up to him and I asked him who he was. And he just looked at me. I could see something strange in his eyes. There was fear. And there was, could it be, love? He was wrestling with himself, trying to decide what to do. And then he turned to the bar, and scribbled something down on a piece of paper. He handed it to me and I took it. And then he got up, wordlessly, and just walked out.

I looked at the paper, confused. There were three shorts lines on it. An address.

The creepy skeleton of a man in the bar had given me an address.

Any sensible person would probably have burned the thing. They probably would have stopped playing this sort of venue. But I couldn’t do that. I stuffed the address in my pocket and I went back to playing. And then, over the next few days, I played the encounter through my head again and again. What did the man want? What was he up to? Was he dangerous?

I looked up the address.

Google Earth revealed the place was a shack surrounded by tall grass and abandoned lots in a part of town that was actually crappier than The Contraband itself. It wasn’t the sort of place I should visit. It wasn’t that I was a middle class girl. Even a woman ‘in the trade’ knew better than to go to abandoned buildings to visit strange men who handed them addresses in the backs of places like The Contraband.

And so, two weeks passed. I played at The Contraband every chance I got, but he wasn’t there. The address burned in my pocket, filling me with questions and a strange kind of yearning I couldn’t quite place. I had to see the man again. I had to understand why he had given me that address.

And so, one day, I gave in.

It was stupid. But I had to see him again, and I had to understand.

And so, I took the bus to the worst part of town. For some reason, I took my viola with me. When I got off the bus, the streets were basically empty. It was a threatening absence, like attackers could emerge from anywhere at any time. You could smell the grasses and the faint odor of dangerous men who had been here not long before. For that moment, I was grateful for my own poor clothes. Except for the viola, I didn’t look like a target.

I walked down the street – past derelict buildings and falling houses and empty lots overgrown with glass bottles and grass. And then I came to the address he had given me. It looked abandoned. There was a chain link fence around it. But somebody had cut some of the links. And there was a shack in the middle of the lot, barely held together and patched with blue plastic tarps.

There were no windows.

I sucked in a huge breath and then shimmied through the fence, crossed the rough ground and came up to the door of the shack itself. I paused, and then I knocked on the door. It swung open, on creaking hinges. It was dark inside; there was no electricity. There was a faint smell of the rotted wood planking that held the place together. And there was a faint blue glow, cast by the tarps that covered the shack’s poorly joined corners.

I should have stopped then, but I didn’t. I pushed the door all the way open and I walked inside.

It took my eyes a little while to adjust. And then I saw him. The man. He was sitting in the corner, on a plastic chair. He looked at me, that combination of fear and love in his eyes.

And I looked at him, realizing I somehow felt the same way. And then he began to sing.

I don’t know how to describe what I heard in that broken-down shack. It was harsh and biting and discordant. But at the same time, it was the most intensely beautiful thing I have ever encountered. The walls seemed to echo with the love and mercy and power of that man’s voice. I didn’t hear any words, just notes. Notes that seemed to be piled one on top of the other like unwashed plates after a family meal, or like layers of silt in a running stream, or like books that have been lovingly consumed by a voracious reader.

It seemed like I would drift away in that music. By the sadness, by the joy, by the wisdom contained within those notes. But then the man touched my hand, bringing me back. And he kept singing.

I watched him, I watched his face. He was illuminated by his wordless song.

It seemed like all the world was in that voice. It seemed like you could disappear into the vastness of what he sang. I knew his song was rebuilding me from the inside out.

And then he was done.

The place was silent. There were just the two of us, standing there, looking at one another with something far closer to love than to fear. I wanted to ask why he didn’t perform. I wanted to ask why he wasn’t on stage. But then he let go of my hand and I knew the answer.

Most people couldn’t hear that music and stay themselves. They would drift away, as I almost had. I realized what his fear had been – it was fear that I wouldn’t have been able to hear his music. He had kept me there, with the touch of his fingertips. Without his touch, I could have vanished, happily erased within the beauty of his voice.

We didn’t speak, even then. But his music became a part of me.

And then I knew why he had brought me there.

I left then. We still hadn’t exchanged a single snippet of conversation. But we had shared so much more. And so, I left. And I went back to The Contraband. But now my music was different. I had his music inside of me. I played and watched the zombies turn and pull themselves back into reality. I touched them. I touched their souls. When my set ended, they just stood there, eagerly waiting for more. And I got other opportunities then. I played in other places. And I changed people everywhere I went. I thought about making a record or an mp3. But, somehow, I knew this music wasn’t meant for recording.

It had to be transmitted in person – person to person. You had to be there to feel it.

I played larger and larger venues. I laminated that old address and I wore it like a necklace. Tucked under my blouse. It was a constant reminder of the risk I had taken. Overnight, it seemed like I became a sensation. You couldn’t listen to my tunes on the radio or on YouTube. You had to come and listen, in person.

I was the modern artist who did nothing modern.

And I knew he was behind my music. And others sensed it as well. He had given me a spirit and I had given him a voice. Everybody knew that I was expressing the soul of another artist. And I was okay with that, for a time. I was touching their souls. And every so often, I would even go back to that shack. And I would listen to the voice of a man I knew better than any other.

I became more and more successful. But then, somehow, I began to believe I was responsible for my success. It began to anger me that I was simply channeling his music.

I wanted my own voice. I wanted to get out from under the thumb of the skeleton of a man.

And so, almost as if I was rebelling against his rule, I shut out his music. I tried to find my own voice, borrowing from the genres that surrounded me. I went back to the punk viola and the rock viola and the pop viola.

But everything fell apart.

My music had no life. As hard as I tried, it had no soul. People left my shows, disappointed. And then I climbed back down the ladder of success. I realized my mistake, of course. But it was too late.

When I tried to play his music once again, it was gone.

There was a void where his love had once been.

I even went back to the shack, again and again. But it was always empty.

It seemed like nobody had ever been living there.

I was cursed again; playing The Contraband. Drug addicts asked me where I learned my technique.

But nobody was touched by what my music had to say.

And then, one evening, in that drug-infested venue, I had a revelation. It wasn’t that I suddenly realized my music had no soul, I’d known that before. And it wasn’t that I suddenly realized that my music offered no chance of success or fame; I’d already figured that out.

No, I knew, in that instant, that my music was destined to vanish. I played it and it disappeared almost as soon as the notes left my bow. It was like I was playing a melody, and it was consumed by a waiting void.

I wanted to cry then. I knew there was another path. The man’s voice might not have been mine alone, but it was the voice I was meant to have. The music he gave me flew off my bow, resonating through the deep cavities of my viola and seemed to fill the space around me. His notes seemed to stay within those who heard them, a timeless after-effect that gave meaning to my life and to the lives of those who heard me.

His was the music of eternity.

And he had chosen me to play it.

And in that instant, I felt his music once again. And I began to play his music once again. And I was filled with joy at the opportunity. It wasn’t about fame or money. It was about giving reality to something far greater than I could ever be.

I played that music. I closed my eyes and I imagined myself back in that shack. I heard his voice within me and I shared it with the world around me. And the zombies stopped and pulled themselves back into reality. And I kept playing, imagining the music spinning out, far beyond the walls of The Contraband. I imagined it touching the bums in the street, the police in their cars, the suburbanites in their suburban houses and the couples gazing out over the slowly moving downtown river.

I imagined that music filling the world. And I imagined the beauty it could bring.

Then I opened my eyes and he was there, just like the first time. He was watching me from the ‘dry’ bar. His eyes were full of forgiveness. And his eyes were full of love. There was no fear.

And I felt the tears streaming from my eyes. Tears of joy and tears of longing and tears of regret as I remembered what I had abandoned in service of my pride.

I knew then that he was my soul and I was his voice.

And I kept playing, the laminated address resting underneath my blouse.

I knew I had to keep playing. I knew I had to bring his music to the world.

I watched the skeleton of a man smile.

And I wondered, just for a moment, if he was really there.

Photo by Ray Aucott on Unsplash

  1. Susan R Quinn says:

    Your writing has become of my Shabbat reading! I especially was intrigued by the idea of separation–how G-d created separation with the heavens and the earth; how we must separate ourselves from the mundane world to elevate ourselves and become holy; how we try to overcome the separation between ourselves and Hashem; and how we must not only separate ourselves from the world, but paradoxically we must engage with the world to set an example of moral behavior. Maybe that’s the meaning of, “Being in the world but not of it”? Thanks, Joseph

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