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Bach's Two-Part Inventions and Embracing Imperfection

Parashat Sh'lah - June 5, 2021

When I was a younger pianist, I tried to avoid playing anything by J.S. Bach at all costs. Bach’s music requires precision and clarity; it is very obvious when a musician makes a mistake while playing Bach. I always preferred Romantic pieces, with their giant, crunchy chords, tones that purposefully blur together, and sheer emotional weight that can distract from a missed note. As I became a more skilled, more mature pianist, the reality of competition made it clear that every mistake, even in a Romantic piece, had its consequences. I became terrified of those mistakes, often freezing in the middle of a performance, or becoming so embarrassed at a wrong note that I had trouble focusing on the rest of the piece. Towards the end of college, I gave up piano performance; the anxiety just wasn’t worth it.

A few years ago, when I started playing piano again, I knew I wanted to begin with Bach. This time, refreshed and ready to go, older and wiser I would have the focus to get through a minute-long piece without any errors. I started with Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, using a book that still included my teacher’s notes from twenty years ago. I thought that Bach’s Inventions, originally written as a set of technical exercises, would be simple and short enough to practice achieving musical perfection. 

Today, at this point, I have learned 14 out of Bach’s 15 Two-Part Inventions. Still, I often find myself pausing to get my bearings in the middle of Invention Number 1 or playing a flat when it should be natural in Invention Number 5. At some point in time, I am going to have to accept my musical flaws; I should not play piano locked up in my own living room forever. And so, I have made a commitment - my practice of Bach’s Inventions is no longer about practicing perfection; rather, it is about practicing the acceptance of my imperfection. I am not perfect. I need to learn how to learn from my imperfections, how to keep playing even when I freeze or make a mistake, and I need to learn how to transform that altered note into something even more beautiful. More importantly, I need to carry my conviction, my confidence with imperfection, into my life outside of the living room, as well.

Chances are, - and this may be surprising - you are not perfect either. Certainly, God does not expect you to be perfect. Towards the end of Parashat Sh’lah, God instructs the people Israel:

If an individual has erred unwittingly, he shall offer a she-goat in its first year as a hatat offering. The priest shall make expiation before Adonai on behalf of the person who erred, for he erred unwittingly, making such expiation for him that he may be forgiven. For the citizen among the Israelites and for the stranger who resides among them- you shall have one ritual for anyone who acts in error. (Numbers 15:27-29)

God knows that mistakes will happen; flaws are just part of our nature. As long as we take actions to remedy or learn from mistakes, we all have the chance to find forgiveness, to right our wrongs. Today, when we have no Biblical hatat offering, our words and efforts towards those hurt by our mistakes, even if we are the only ones hurt, are everything in achieving forgiveness.

Sometimes, it may seem that we are so flawed that it is not even worth pursuing forgiveness or learning from our imperfections. Sometimes, we work to remedy our wrongs or our errors, and our actions make things even worse, but I think about Rabbi Tarfon’s famous words in Pirkei Avot: “The day is short and the work is long. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:15). While life may not seem long enough to improve upon all of the flaws that make up our being, while there is always the risk of messing things up even further, it is still our duty to do the work towards achieving our best deeds and our best selves each and every day.

My newfound obsession with bullet journaling has been another challenge in embracing and learning from imperfection. I started the practice of bullet journaling, organizing my to-do lists and note-taking in a particular format, after I became fed up once again with my imperfections in time management and prioritization. Keeping a bullet journal has helped me to remember more tasks, to be on time to more appointments, and to be consistent with habits like prayer, Torah study, and yoga. But of course, I have had “polish boots” on my list of tasks every day for three months now. If I don’t remember to write down a task or appointment, it often doesn’t get done. And my next step has to be figuring out how to both write in my journal every night and get to bed at a halfway decent hour. I know that this journal is an important step in the road to improving myself, and I know that I will continue to forget to do or to show up every once in a while. While my imperfection is fully human, is fully a trait to embrace, that human imperfection does not give me an excuse to give up on my goal of fully showing up, in a timely manner, with full focus, for every single person who needs me. My habit of bullet journaling helps to guide me, sometimes shakily, towards that goal.

Of course, there are deeds beyond showing up late or playing a wrong note that can never be forgiven. Our parshah presents just a few: for one, when the Israelite community fears the prospect of entering the land of Israel and calls to stone those spies who argue for entering the land, God decrees that the Israelites will wander forty years in the desert. While their children will see the Promised Land, the adults will perish in the desert. Even when the Israelites try to repent and enter the land without God’s help, they swiftly lose their battle. For another, when an individual purposely acts with defiance against God, they are cut off from their people - no second chances. Sometimes, a mistake is so dire that a second chance is impossible. And yet, while we may not be able to fix those mistakes, we may be able to learn from them and to teach future generations about them. Even though being human sometimes means making those mistakes from which we will never recover, those mistakes cannot be ignored or left as is. From individual relationship decisions to public speech that can ruin a career, we are each responsible for learning from and teaching about our misdeeds.

Before our parshah mentions individual misdeeds, it speaks about our communal imperfections. When we, as a community, do something wrong, we as a community must bring a sacrifice. We come to this space, among countless other reasons, to acknowledge our shared strengths and weaknesses. We come to this space to carry each other and to be carried. May we use this space to provide comfort to one another, assurance that imperfection does not amount to failure. At the same time, may we use this space to lovingly offer and accept critique. And of course, may we acknowledge when we err in our decisions about this community and never shy away from taking the steps to make this space even holier. Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782