Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Blowin' in the Wind - Musings on Haazinu, Bob Dylan, and Sukkot

Haazinu – Give ear, listen – Those are the words that begin our Torah portion this week, our penultimate Torah portion in fact.

Moses cries these words Haazinu, Give ear as he stands before the people as they are about to enter the Promised Land. He is an old man now. 120 years old. He looks out at them, knowing that his children, the children of Israel are going to go on without him and wonders how he can share his last blessings with them, his last gifts of advice. He decides to convey his sacred message through music.

Haazinu is the start of a song that he sings to the people.

Music is often how we communicate key messages in not only secular settings, but in religious ones as well. Torah is often chanted, not read for instance – and that chant changes on special days. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we share the words of our scrolls, we hear a tune that is reserved only for these days. And it’s the same for our megillot as well. The book of Esther on Purim has its own chant and the book of Ecclesiastes has its own chant on Sukkot.

Our daily prayers get a musical makeover on the high holy days to make us aware that we are in something new… Yai dai dai dai dai dai…

And our Torah and the rest of the Tanakh are peppered with songs throughout. It's in the song of the sea, Mi Chamocha, which we joyously sang after we crossed the Sea of Reeds – and which we sing as our song of redemption during prayer. And it's in the Deborah's song in the book of Judges after we were victorious in battle. And it's in Shir haShirim, in the Song of Songs, words that extol the loving relationship between our people and God.

While we no longer have the music that was associated with many of these pieces and certainly not with this week’s song, Shirat Haazinu, we can still give ear to its words and poetry.

Haazinu hashamayim v’adabeirah, v’tishma haaretz imri fi - Give ear o heavens let me speak – let the earth hear the words that I utter.

This poem, in which Moses is lovingly bidding us farewell, goes on to describe the relationship between our people and God. It will remind us that though we will inevitably mistakes and anger God, that God will still take us back and love us. A pertinent message certainly following these high holy days.

Within his words, Moses compares the power of poetry to water:

Yaarof kamatar likchi tizal catal imrati may my discourse come down as the rain. My speech distill as the dew. Like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.

Just as water sustains us, so does the message of our text. Poetry, songs – they stay in our hearts and revive us when we are parched – perhaps more easily than any piece of prose can do.

This week with Haazinu in our midst, I can’t help but think of another poet whose words work to sustain us in seasons of drought. The words of Bob Dylan also known as Robert Zimmerman who yesterday was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Many were delighted if somewhat surprised by the choice. However, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, implied it was an obvious choice. She said, “I came to realize that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago. They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page. We enjoy [their] poetry, and I think Bob Dylan deserves to be read as a poet.” 

And of course a man who would take the name Dylan from Dylan Thomas is a poet at heart.

Now it is no secret that I, of course, was not around (or even alive) during the era that Bob Dylan first made his mark. I did not grow up on Dylan, but I appreciate his work nonetheless and I see his Nobel win as a chance for us to get re-acquainted or for many, especially the youngest amongst us, to be acquainted for the first time with his amazing body of work.

I could speak about any number of Dylan greats like The Times they are a-changing and Like A rolling Stone, but this moment in our year, with Sukkot a-comin, starting this Sunday evening, I want to turn to Blowin in the Wind.

Dylan muses…

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

The wind is key to the holiday of Sukkot. For it is on Sukkot that we change our prayer in the tefillah – instead of praying for dew as we do as summer long, we begin to pray for the winds to blow and the rains to fall… but moreso, the wind is key to Sukkot because of its power.

We build sukkot, these huts we sit in, eat in, and sleep in… and we do so despite the elements. A sukkah is an impermanent structure meant to remind us of the vulnerability of life and the illusion that we will be forever young or forever blessed without incident. If a strong wind were to come by, we know too well that our sukkah would fall. So, too, in our lives, if a strong wind, an accident, an unexpected illness, an actual hurricane, all too-real and too-present… if a strong wind were to rip through our lives… all that we have built would fall. We need to accept the impermanence of not only our material items, but also our very time on this earth. Sukkot serves as a sacred reminder to pay attention to that which is real in life – love, faith, the very real notion of empathy for another human being.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind – what does Dylan mean when we sing of those winds? Some say that means that the answer is unknowable. It will pass us by. Indeed how many times must the cannon balls fly before they're forever banned? Perhaps Dylan is being cynical – we will never know for we are too attached to our instruments of war. These are lessons we never learn – or at least not until it is too late.

And some say the answer blowin’ in the wind means that the answer is right here, right in front of us and all around us. It's in the very air. The answer instead of being unknowable is obvious. It’s blowing in the wind right here for us to catch and grasp – if only we will.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe who believed the ultimate redemption was imminent once said, "We have to open our eyes to signs of the Redemption." And I believe him. I do believe that redemption is around us – I believe that WE make that happen when We open our eyes and when WE lift each other UP in positive ways.

It’s all around us. The answers are in goodness and love, in standing up for what is right, in self-honesty. In passing on the power of poetry. The answers to redemption are here.

All we need are open hearts and open eyes – and open hands, too, to grab what is right before us blowin’ in the wind.

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