Friday, June 01, 2007

B’haalot'kha: Miles Davis in the Desert

Imagine being alive to see the greats of the jazz era hone their craft. John Coltrane. Charlie Parker. Miles Davis. Three legends of not only jazz music, but of any genre of music in modern history. When these three jazz icons - or any of their peers - got on stage or a street corner to wail on their instruments, people gathered to listen and be taken to a higher place. God forsees these jazz-induced orgasmic experiences in this week’s Parsha, B’ha’alotkha.

In the portion, God commands Moses:
Make two silver trumpets for calling the community... you shall blow the trumpet and you will be remembered before God, and you will be delivered from your enemies. On that day of rejoicing and in your festive season and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets. (Num. 10:1-10)

I find it important to point out that these call horns were “silver trumpets” and not the shofarim used later in the Torah, and even today. The shofar, the horn of a ram, did not and does not compare to the trumpet in terms of tune and pitch, but cannot be rivaled in raw power. The shofar, after all, made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. But power was not what the Israelites had in the desert - they were weak, and complained constantly.

This whole Parsha is about Moses, the greatest leader in our people’s history, doubting his own leadership skills due to his people’s constant complaints. The Israelites needed finesse, entertainment. The shofar would have only been another reason to whine, due to its lack of objective beauty, visually and aurally. The silver trumpet was given to the people to ease their superficial suffering. The generations to follow had the power to take hold of the shofar.

I have experience with both the shofar and the trumpet. When my parents went to Israel for the first time, when I was 8 years old, they returned 10 days later, bearing gifts. The present I revered most was a small, black shofar my father had bought for me in Jerusalem. I immediately began to blow, day and night, in preparation for the New Year. The sound and smell both marked where in the house and I had been and where I was headed.

That year’s High Holiday services marked a change. After years of masterful shofar blowing by one of The Watering Hole’s own fathers, our new Rabbi coordinated a shofar choir of both young and old to really bring the house down. I loved blowing the shofar on the High Holidays. It was the main event, and I was a co-star. I did so until I was 13, when being up on the bima to blow shofar instantly became “uncool.” I did pick it up again in college. My senior year, I even blew the shofar in both the Reform and Conservative service: my first double-header.

All this shofar blowing history is important, but the key to the story is that I was an awful shofar blower, and it didn’t matter. Those in attendance revered me because I had taken on the sheer power of the shofar.

The trumpet is a different story. I always loved jazz music, but didn’t know much about it until I took History of Jazz my first semester at UNC. This class, ultimately my favorite in college, opened my eyes to an incredibly rich history of ground-breaking musicians and performances. The best and most challenging part of this class was recognizing solos from famous jazz pieces both by instrument and musician with no melodic context. I would listen to these provided solos over and over on my headphones in my dorm until I knew every note. These solos would take me to another place, make me forget about all the other stresses of being a first-year college student. I would hide my procrastination by studying jazz.

My love of jazz has not wavered in the five years since I took that class. Living four blocks from the center of the DC jazz district doesn’t hurt. The most tangible tool I learned in that class and use today is the ability to assess skill on the trumpet, among other jazz instruments. Within moments, I can tell if a musician is going to wow or bore me with strong accuracy. God giving the people silver trumpets was a stop-gap used to ease the constant complaining of the people of Israel, but could easily become a punishment, depending on the trumpeter. But try blowing a shofar on a busy urban street - it's guaranteed to be a show-stopper.

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