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Thursday, July 3, 2008. It is three days before my wedding to Lisa and I am thinking of things to do with my family as they come to visit and celebrate with us in Sydney, Australia. Like most tourists, my family can't wait to attend a performance (of anything) at the Sydney Opera House, so my first inclination (of course) is to consult the website for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Because God works in mysterious ways, and because God sometimes playfully beats us over the head, I notice that Mahler's First Symphony is being performed that afternoon. We secure inexpensive seats behind the orchestra, not exactly prime seating for a piece of such magnitude. Drat. The acoustics are loud and blurred.
But I am happy. I've been living in Australia for two years, I'm about to be married to a very special woman, my career as a rabbi is developing, and while my mother is not with us, I notice the interesting symmetry. Mahler's First becomes like bookends; there for me before I knew bereavement, and there as I approach and taste the joy and sweetness of life.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010. The Sydney Symphony has announced that Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy will lead the orchestra on a two-year Mahler Odyssey, playing all ten of his symphonies, beginning with Mahler's First. Because I've just turned thirty, I can still qualify for a youth subscription, meaning that I can buy good seats at a significantly discounted price. As much as I want Lisa to be my date, classical music is not her thing, she is seven months pregnant with Hannah and says, "See if Uncle Pete will go with you." So there we are, seated in the fifth row of the Premium section of the Opera House, listening to Mahler's First, and this time, it sounds even better than the recording I purchased years earlier when I was in college.
But I am anxious. In two months, I will become a father. I do not know what to expect. Leave it to good ole' Gustav to provide me with yet another bookend.
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Friday, June 8, 2018. Today I am thirty-nine years old. In twelve years as a rabbi, I haven't ever delivered a sermon on my actual birthday so why not talk about classical music for a change? Regardless of Mahler's much-maligned personal and Jewish journey, there is plenty of Torah to be learned from Mahler's First.
Often called "Titan," after an epic poem written by Jean Paul Richter that follows a hero from passionate youth to mature ruler, Mahler's First unfolds as symbolic of a wayfarer's journey over four movements. The journeyman proceeds through the beauty of a spring day in a forest, and continues striding along. But by the middle of the third movement, the hero of our story is lost in a dark, almost funereal setting.
I would imagine that so many of us in this place of sanctuary have been there. The middle of that third movement is a dark, lonely place. It is a place where the music seems to stop for a while, where everything seems to go silent. It is an unhinging moment - a personal tragedy among our family, friends, or community; an unfortunate diagnosis; the loss of a job; a painful divorce; a crippling memory of abuse or violation; or any number of circumstances where life just seems cruel and downright unfair.
We become like the Israelites in this week's Torah portion. Their hearts are set on journeying through the wilderness; they wish to enter the Promised Land. But they are told "no." Similarly in life, our own vision of redemption can crumble before our eyes, and hopelessness may set in. We are left to wonder. How will we ever get through this wilderness, whatever thiswilderness may be for us?
And then, without pause, the orchestra begins the fourth movement, with the crashing of the trumpets and trombones. Mahler once described the finale to Bernhard Schuster as, "The sudden outburst...of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart." Philip Huscher writes, "This is music in search of victory, and Mahler retreats from battle several times before he triumphs."
That breathless and breathtaking "search for victory," that frustrating retreat from battle, that dignified turning and facing of our wounds and challenges, is precisely the treacherous and tenuous and tumultuous journey upon which Mahler leads us. Amidst the sounds of heartbreak and sorrow, there are bright spots in the fourth movement where we flow back into lush, peaceful, idyllic music, only for the clutching grasp of pain and grief to confront us once again. Mahler's music tells a story. And he allows us to become the wayfarer on our own journey, moving, as Mahler himself called it, Dall' Inferno al Paradiso, on a journey from hell to paradise.
But that journey, our journey, a journey of grief, recognition, and harnessing new awareness, is not linear. Life may be lived in one direction from cradle to grave, but the days in-between are far too complex to be linear. Sometimes life moments leave us sprawled, shaking on the floor, sobbing like a wounded child; we take one step forward, only to take two steps back, and we don't get what we want. Sometimes we don't find our way into the Promised Land, or when we do, it doesn't look at all like we expected that it would or should. Sometimes we triumph, valiantly, heroically, bravely, and courageously, finding our own inner strength, as well as the helpful support of others and God who push and impel us forward to scale greater heights than we ever thought possible. Or sometimes, even when we have everything -- love, children, friendship, health, professional success -- life can still hurt. Sometimes we can give words to that pain. Sometimes we can't.
Mahler's music speaks to these palpable truths. There is a beautiful moment at the conclusion of the symphony where seven horns are instructed in the music to "play out," "even over the trumpets." These musicians rise from their seats playing the triumphant climax of the piece, demonstrating that victory has been won. But where Mahler regards the victory as ultimately coming in death, when he believes the hero has victory over himself, perhaps there is another truth for the ephemeral nature of our lives.
Both "the wounded heart of despair" and "the triumphant climax" feature in the same symphonic movement of the same musical piece. If Mahler's Symphony is reminiscent of life, then both the "wounded heart" and the "triumphant climax" happen together in the here and now, in the same life, sometimes, even in the same hesitant yet full breath or the same salty tear.
There can be paradise within the inferno, and there can be inferno within the paradise. We never fully taste paradise, no matter how much we want to, no matter how much we crave it. The Torah finishes before ever the Israelites set foot in the Promised Land. And the truth is that we have to find our own land flowing with milk and honey, a land that is good enough, even when the cows are unruly and the bees are swarming and stinging us.
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Sunday, June 10, 2018. A few months ago, to celebrate my birthday, I purchased concert tickets (40% off of course). The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is set to perform Brahms' Violin Concerto, and then, after intermission, the orchestra will perform Mahler's First. I can't tell you yet how I'll be feeling as I sit in that auditorium. But as I begin living through my fortieth year in this wilderness we call life, as I celebrate the Promised Land that I enjoy and aspire to even greater heights, I think I'll sit back for fifty-five minutes and focus on my own wounded, broken, despairing heart, because, yes, I too have one, just like everyone else. Not to worry though, I won't allow fear or sorrow to consume me. And when the horns stand up at the end of the piece, I'll allow myself to taste a bit of sweet triumph.
For that is life and that is my life. My own heart is so overwhelmingly broken and shattered beyond repair and so filled and bursting with life, much like Mahler's First. As I celebrate this birthday, I remember the old saying, that it takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes an orchestra of people -- family, friends, colleagues, congregants, mentors, even strangers -- to help compose a man, to lead a conductor into recognizing who he really is, and what he really has.
At the end of the concert, there will be applause. The crowd will rise from their seats, as American audiences often do, and because the finale of Mahler's First is just that good. And then the moment will pass, because that's what moments do. We can hang on to that moment and place it in a special part of our heart. And then, like a special birthday, we have no choice but to let it go, and keep on journeying through life.
Some of us perform this journey with gusto. Me? I journey with Gustav. I mark milestones and moments, both the madness and the majesty of life, with Mahler. His music reminds me, much like that friend twelve and a half years ago, on a night that I didn't want to go to the symphony, "We never stop living, even when living is hard."