On Music, Transcendence and Holiness

(a contemplation continued from yesterday…)

The word for holiness means separating or distinguishing. The quality of holiness that we attribute to God is utter transcendence and separateness from anything physical. To put it in the positive God is pure spirituality.

How can we emulate God’s utter transcendence from the physical world? We can’t. And we’re not supposed to.

Human transcendence comes through making separations and distinctions within the physical material we are working with.

Think of music. The notes are nothing more than notes. We play some soft, others hard, some faster others slower, some staccato others held down. The more polished the musician the more and more subtleties he or she will make in the various qualities of speed or volume or tonality.

As all of this is happening to the physical notes, a melody is coming through. My husband once reflected that when he heard the music of Bill Evans he could hear the good qualities of his personality come through the music and he liked what he heard. When he saw Bill Evans in an interview it confirmed what he heard in the music. The distinctions don’t take away from the notes. They allow the music to shine through the notes. It’s the same with the artist who is carving into clay or putting paint on the canvass.

And it’s the same with anything we do in life. We’re making subtle distinctions all the time. For this person who badly needs my help right now or that person who’s done a lot for me I’ll go a little more out of my way than I will for someone else or maybe I’ll go out of my way for a complete stranger. It depends on millions of subtle distinctions.

A human being is an artist creating a work of art – his own self.

In the process of creating yourself you transcend the physical plane. You don’t transcend by shunning the physical but by elevating the physical with you, redeeming it by fashioning it, shaping it and bringing out its hidden beauty.

This is the meaning of the moment. Every single moment contains within it the possibility of transcendence. As we use our creativity to make subtle distinctions and play with the clay, changing it and redeeming it from its raw state by intentionally putting a crease here and smoothing it out there, what shines through is our transcendent innermost self. The consciousness we put into it is apparent in the masterpiece we’ve created.

Holiness really means two things. It is both the act of separating one thing from another on the physical plane and the spiritual result of having done that separating.

This is why, I believe, Rashi explains holiness as making distinctions on the physical plane regarding what is prohibited by Torah law, and why he especially singles out the separations and boundaries of physical human relationships. Since the mind is the organ that joins between the physical and the spiritual, we only need to bring our conscious awareness or machshava (thought, contemplation) into what we’re doing, that is to make the distinction in our minds as we’re making it in our bodies, in order to transform the physical into something spiritual.

Ramban on the other hand sees the endless possibilities of creativity. Once we begin to make distinctions with our minds the sky is the limit. The goal is not to make more separations that would lead to greater and greater strictness and stringency in the law. The purpose of boundaries is not to shun the physical but to elevate it.

The goal in Jewish law is to put awareness into everything we do and to make more and more subtle distinctions, so that the physical takes on a spiritual quality and the person emulates God’s holiness. In musical terms the melody, and along with it the artist shines through the notes. In logotherapeutic terms (which is to say the meaning of being human) the human being in the higher sense transcends his physical limitations by finding and fulfilling the meaning of the moment.

After an exercise of directing focused thought on one idea for five minutes in a pleasant way (not forcefully holding the thought) this is what came to me:

P.S. I meditated on the following statement: “A physical action that is done with thoughtfulness becomes sanctified.” At first I thought about what thought means. Are you thinking about the meaning of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, whether you want to do this? If you put thought into it, you won’t do it if it’s wrong. There is also a thought you put in before you are about to do it. But this statement is saying something else I think. It’s saying that as you’re doing it, it’s not just with your body, but your mind is involved. So it’s not just a physical action, because it’s being infused with consciousness.

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