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Inspired by Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms*
Ascent # 1:
There are glimpses of a lost spiritual heritage in Jewish practice. We find it in the psalmist’s glorious depictions of nature and the cosmos, and in the mysteries of the sacrifice. Our practice was established to enable us to remain in constant intimacy with Divinity. We have lost that divine intimacy nowadays; many of us don’t even believe that a Divinity exists with which we could be in intimacy. And still, we struggle to keep the ancient practices alive, not always certain if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to, or for that matter, what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Yet we do understand that our lives are fraught with tensions and uncertainties, that life in modern society is grossly out of balance, and that these imbalances may drive the world to economic collapse and environmental disaster. And so, we seek solace, we seek wisdom, we seek to reconnect with the part of us that has not forgotten what we were seeking for in the first place. Chadesh yamenu kekedem.
Seeking requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is scary. When we offer up our first fruits, there’s no guarantee that these won’t be our last fruits of the season. To offer the Shlemah, the sacrifice of well-being, we place on the altar, with our own hands, the breast that had cradled the living, beating heart of a creature that we had fed and cared for. When crisis in our lives causes us to bottom-out, to seek help and change our ways, we may need to abandon our friends, our sources of pleasure, and all that’s familiar. Our Torah reading repeatedly threatens us with being cut off from our kin, and indeed, anyone who goes forth on a journey of purpose and discovery, who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit leaves his pipe and easy chair to go on an adventure, may encounter a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Min hametzar karati yah.
The world can be a scary place. There have always been enemies, highway robbers, and malicious beasts. Today we live in gated communities with encrypted unrememberable passwords on our software. The nightly news keeps us apprised of spectacular meteorological threats, serial killers, and suicidal terrorists. Yet statistically we face far greater danger every time we get behind the wheel of a car…and for the most part we do this without fear and in the vast majority of situations we reach our destination unscathed. In a scientific age, it may seem preposterous to speak about guardian spirits, and yet we experience making perilous car trips without fear when fear is not called for, even though we immediately snap into defensive mode to deal with genuine threats in the road. Somehow we know how to find repose despite potential dangers. We are nourished when we find this repose in wild places, rather than on I-96. There’s a special tranquility in nature at night, fearing nothing, yet poised to react at the first stirrings of a potential cougar or copperhead. Esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.
After describing the proper preparation of the well-being sacrifice, our Torah reading tells us that a pure person may partake in the sacrificial offering. However, “the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his or her kin.” In other words, it’s not enough to do the right thing in the wrong state of mind. We may recite our prayers in perfect Hebrew, unaware what the words mean, and say them so fast that no one else can understand them. And we’re likely to be rewarded with as much blessing as we put into the prayer. To quote Marjan’s commentary on Ascent IV: “Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.” Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha be’emet.
The courage borne of authenticity is extremely energizing. In our Haftarah, the formulaic form of action is described as “defrauding God,” going through the motions without doing the hard work. In contrast, we do authentic work, such as providing food to those in need, the floodgates of the sky open up and blessings pour down. Hafachta mispadi lemachol li pitachta saki ve’te’azreni simchah.
It has become something of a cliché to speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” yet the language is compelling. Feeling in harmony with one’s self and one’s world is a joyful state in which self-care and ethical action become inseparable, in that the same impulse of maintaining and deepening homeostasis expresses itself in relaxing tight shoulders, taking seconds on salad and avoiding the dessert table, picking candy wrappers off the floor, and serving meals to the homeless. Ashirah l’adonai be’chaiyai.
Many believe that claims that introspection and contemplation have no place in Jewish observance. The examples of Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, Shimon bar Yochai, and the Baal Shem Tov suggest otherwise. It is only by going deeply into our souls that we find the insight to repair the world and the courage to act upon that insight. Re-entry is difficult; when we come down from the mountain and see how others are living, our first impulse may be to smash the tablets. After twelve years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon was so disgusted by the unexamined lives of his fellow Israelites that he fixed his gaze on everyone he saw and knocked them dead. He therefore needed to spend another year in the cave to develop compassion. It is this compassion that enables us both to shed a tear and to burst out in laughter when we encounter human foibles, to dedicate our new strength and insight to the benefit of others, and to reconcile our differences. In the closing words of our haftarah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”
Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, March 28, 2015
* Commentary on Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms
Ascent I speaks of disquiet and leave-taking—of choosing a path seemingly at odds with what is familiar and comfortable. Drawn from unease by the mysterious Other of the insistent birdcall, the music establishes a determined pace of escape and ascent, marking the beginning of exploration and discovery.
Ascent II presents a pause in the climb. Here, a first backward glance suggests tender regard for the simplicity and goodness left behind. Opposing this sweetness, however, fear, insecurity, and doubt come to dominate a surreal soundscape where turning back is no longer possible. The flute struggles in this eerie atmosphere, ultimately overcoming fear by boldly singing its own echo of the birdcall. Terror passes, and the movement ends quietly, although unsettled and cautious.
Ascent III unfolds while the protagonist's energy is at rest. The music hints at a realm of guardian spirits where love never slumbers and where the wakeful Spirit watches over all wandering.
Ascent IV reiterates with a vengeance the terrors of the second movement. Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.
Ascent V begins by startling the almost broken character of the flute back into intense wakefulness. The entire brass section resounds in a tumultuous but ambiguous fanfare, to which the flute responds by almost jokingly transforming march into dance. Redemption is close at hand.
Ascent VI crosses a threshold into a world unforeseen. An encircling Presence arises from the fundamental chant of the earth and all souls resident and nearby. Here, music leads to the edge of Silence.
Ascent VII pours irresistibly out of the sixth movement. The flute hurls itself headlong into a joyful re-imagination of everything previously encountered. This music speaks of hope and laughter and joy, of return and renewal. The mountaintop, after all, is only a resting place. Life does not end. The music goes before us to say that all is well. That all shall be well.
©2014 Marjan Helms
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