Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783: The Subtle Art
While I have been going to orchestra concerts for my entire life, on Sunday afternoon I witnessed something extraordinary: I saw Herbert Blomstedt, one of the major conductors of the last century, lead the Chicago Symphony in a program of music by the great nineteenth century Bohemian composer, Antonin Dvořák. (Photo above is from the applause at the end of the concert.)
What was remarkable about Blomstedt was not so much that he’s a great conductor—I’ve seen plenty—but that he is now 95 years old. After a lifetime of leading orchestras in the United States and Europe, he is now manifestly in his final chapter. He was able to walk from the stage door to the podium only with the help of an aid, and he conducted while sitting on a piano bench that was perched atop a double riser. The image as he came out to lead the orchestra was a combination of eminence—I had the urge to stand up, the way the orchestra does, the way we did in yeshiva when a rebbe entered the room, or the way the Torah itself commands us: “‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Lev. 19:32)—and, simultaneously, of frailty. I’m pretty sure everyone there wondered if this was the last time we’d see Herbert Blomstedt in Chicago. (Reason for optimism: The subscription renewal for next year says he’s scheduled to lead Beethoven’s Seventh next March 2024.)
Once we got beyond the preliminaries, what emerged for me was a masterclass in subtlety. Without the ability to stand, and without the physical energy of his younger self, Blomstedt had to make do with much more constrained gestures of his hands and face. There were no grand sweeps, no crouching, no springing up. There frankly wasn’t even much use of his arms, as it was really all in his hands. (This is why I get seats in the terrace section, behind the orchestra. Folks in the main hall can’t see this stuff.) The picture was the antithesis of the iconic image of Leonard Bernstein spread eagle at Tanglewood that has hung in my office for years.
And yet—or maybe yet isn’t the right word—what emerged from the orchestra was breathtaking. Dvořák’s cello concerto and eighth symphony are works that Blomstedt, and the musicians, have all played countless times before. It would be easy for them to phone it in, to be bored by their familiarity with these pieces that they (and many in the audience) have known since their youth. But, led by Blomstedt, what they conveyed was a sense of profound intimacy with these works. They were playing—really playing—with dear lifelong friends. This was the definition of a mature performance, at once fully in control and yet wearing that self-mastery with lightness and ease. It was marvelous, precisely because of the subtlety.
Vayakhel-Pekudei brings us to the end of the Book of Exodus, which has been quite a journey. Only weeks ago we were reading of the pyrotechnics of the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the thunder and lightning of the revelation at Mount Sinai. That was all Act I of the book. Act II, however, has been, generally speaking, much quieter, focused on the quiet craftsmanship of building the mishkan. Over the last month we have read the detailed instructions for creating the furniture, appliances, and clothing of this place of Divine-human encounter. In this week’s double portion we recount, in detail, how all those instructions were fulfilled. Where Act I was characterized by grand gestures (“I have borne you on eagle’s wings” – Ex. 19:4), the emblem of Act II is something much quieter but no less powerful (“Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” – Ex. 25:8).
From the outset of the building project, the Torah emphasizes that it is to be work of the heart: “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (Ex. 25:2, 35:5). As any of us who have ever experienced youthful love can attest, that can movement of the heart can feel very big—pounding, overwhelming, marked by grand gestures. But as we age—and here I speak from some experience and much more observation—that heart movement might manifest subtler ways: small movements of hands or eyes, well-chosen words, the simple power of presence, the familiarity that attends long-term accompaniment.
All of these forms of heart-movement have their time and place. We practice throughout our lives in order to discern how our hearts are moving, and how they might move with greater grace and ease, as we endeavor to be vessels for the Divine presence. May we be blessed with health, well-being, and the company of others on the journey.