My brothers and I were all musicians growing up, and the radio in our house was regularly on and tuned to a classical music station. Each of us played multiple instruments—piano, trumpet and French horn (my brothers), euphonium and tuba (me). We grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which punched (and continues to punch) far above its weight in music and the arts. We went to concerts at Hill Auditorium all the time to hear the world’s great symphony orchestras on tour. In short: classical music was, and remains, a huge part of my life.
Of all the composers in the classical repertoire, I, like many others, am uniquely moved by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). If you’re a fellow Mahlerian, you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If not, I’ll try to explain: Mahler was able to do things with an orchestra that no one else could really do. There is a singular quality to his music, which is simultaneously beautiful, heart-wrenching, breathtaking, mysterious, bold, brilliant, inventive… It’s hard to put into words. But, as many classical music lovers like me will attest, there is something in the experience of listening to a Mahler symphony that is categorically different than listening to pretty much anyone else.
Mahler was born to a Jewish family in Bohemia in 1860. His father was ran a tavern. As a teenager, he made his way to Vienna and established himself as a brilliant conductor and a gifted composer. He converted to Catholicism—at least partially, it would seem, in order to become director of the Vienna Opera, which would not appoint a Jew to the position. He later went on to conduct the Met and the New York Philharmonic.
Each of Mahler’s nine symphonies is epic. They require enormous orchestras to play them, often including choirs, solo vocalists, and unusual specialty instruments. This was part of Mahler’s vision. As I learned listening to an amazing podcast about Mahler’s symphonies, he once told his contemporary, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, “The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” (The title of the podcast, Embrace Everything, comes from this line.) Mahler’s musical palette, and his musical imagination, encompassed the full range of human emotion and experience, and the fullness of creation: plants, birds, fish, animals, wind, fire, earth, water—and spirit, the soul, and the Divine. He included sounds, like birdsong or a postman’s “post horn” (used to announce his arrival) that other composers wouldn’t have thought to include in the orchestra. (Seriously, listen to the podcast, which does an amazing job explicating all of this.)
In Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah evokes a similar sensibility of embracing everything. The Torah portion contains 53 mitzvot (commandments/laws/practices)—nearly 10 percent of the total 613 in the Torah. The parasha includes mitzvot about seemingly every area of life, from communal rituals to civil law, from rules governing marriages to eating practices. The range is enormous, spanning major commandments about things like manslaughter and killing in self-defense, to the foundations of a compassionate social policy that explicitly cares for those on the margins of society and does justice impartially, to the intimate: Don’t curse your parents, don’t gossip, make sure to return lost objects. The span is head-spinning, breathtaking even.
Rashi, following the Midrash, remarks on the opening words of the Parasha, “And these are the laws:” Why does the Torah include the conjunctive “and” here? Because we concluded last week’s Torah portion with the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. “Just as those commandments were given at Sinai, so too were these.” The Torah itself provides us an answer too: “You will be holy people to Me” (Ex. 22:30) in this week’s parasha echoes the words of the Holy One just before the revelation at Sinai: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6).
This efflorescence of mitzvot is an expression of a fundamental impulse of Jewish spiritual life: Every moment is an invitation to practice, to be mindfully aware and present. We have an opportunity to bring awareness of the Divine presence into everything from the major moments of our lives—birth, death, marriage, parent-child relationships—to the mundane: what we eat, how we speak, the way we responsibly take care of the people and things in our lives. In perhaps more musical terms, the voice of the Divine is not only something we hear during a performance, or in the formalized atmosphere of the orchestra as conventionally conceived. It is humming, singing, all the time, if we attune our ears to listen.
I remember writing a paper my senior year of college in which I tried to argue for the Jewishness of Mahler’s music. While I think I got a good grade on it, I remember feeling like it was a very forced argument. I was really hoping to find something—I wanted Mahler’s music to be deeply, if secretly, Jewish. But now I’m pretty sure that the klezmer-like sound of the clarinet and trumpet in the third movement of his First Symphony, for instance, isn’t uniquely Jewish, but the sound of popular country bands of his youth (which may have been klezmer bands, but weren’t uniquely Jewish). Yet, on a much deeper level, I now understand Mahler’s music as expressing a profound spirituality, one that embraces multiple traditions and that is rooted in this view deeply grounded in the Torah: The Holy One is not only available at special moments or in certain places or people; the Creator abides in the world, calling to us in every moment and every breath. May we nurture our capacity to hear and make the music of the Divine together.