Ha’azinu – Rock and Roll to Peace
In an interpretation of our tradition it is said that on Har Sinai, Moses received all of Torah. Torah past and Torah future. He wrote down Bereshit the first Torah portion, and he wrote down V’Zot HaBracha, the last Torah portion.
I imagine that when Moses chanted the words of Ha’azinu, the beautiful biblical poem that starts and occurs in the Torah reading tomorrow, our penultimate Torah reading, part of his last speeches to the Children of Israel, that he might have been thinking to himself:
“I wonder if I have any more words to say or songs to sing? Here I have been telling this long, long, story to the children of Israel, the words I received on Mount Sinai… is there more to say at this point? Haven’t I pretty much covered it? I have pretty much exhausted all I have to say for now. But there is still one more Torah portion to go… oh well, let’s begin: “Ha’azinu – Give ear, you heavens, and I will speak, Let the earth hear the words of my mouth…” (Deuteronomy 32:1)”
I identify with what I imagine must have been his challenge in the second-to-last Torah portion. For just when a rabbi and cantor think, after Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, that there is no more to be said… no more to be sung… Shabbat arrives! And we have to speak again and sing again! (Right, Cantor?)
Oh well, let’s begin:
A blessing for the news cycle which offered two significant items for myself and other rabbis and cantors to consider post the High Holy Days.
The first was the news that broke yesterday. UNESCO voted 24 votes for, 6 votes against (including the USA vote), and 26 countries abstaining, denying a Jewish and Christian connection to the old city of Jerusalem. The Palestinian backed-measure declares that the Temple Mount only has a Moslem connection. The motion passed.
Really? Have your read history? Have you read the Torah?
Along with the outrage of many Jewish organizations and Christian organizations, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a press statement that pointed out to the ridiculousness of this resolution. “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids…. I believe that historical truth is stronger and that truth will prevail. “
Indeed, such ahistorical statements and resolutions are not peace-making, as ironically is the mission statement of UNESCO, but such statements serve to undermine and fuel the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It creates myths that do not allow for dialogue, listening, and hearing, and reconciliation, today and in the future. We must understand each other’s history and story if strides are to be made in the Middle East. Such resolutions are not just false in their basis, but counter-productive to peace.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made another statement, less official, on another literary form. Twitter. A literary form where you have to get your point across in 120 characters of less! His tweet was a little more humorous than his press statement. He wrote: “What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and Roll?”
No connection between rock and roll? Really? That is impossible! Which brings us to the second significant Jewish news item of the week. A literary achievement for Rock and Roll.
As well as a literary achievement for the Jewish people. One of our own, Bob Dylan, born Robert Alan Zimmerman, brought into the covenant as Shabbatai Zissel ben Avraham, received the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. And we are all kvelling.
Firstly, this gives kavod, honor, to a previously unrecognized miniature work of literature – the rock song – the melodies which many of us grew up on or listened to in our adult years. There are many fine songwriters who articulate beautiful song poems that are easy to dismiss, well – because they come out in a popular form. In acknowledging Bob Dylan and his writing, the Nobel Commission has legitimized a relatively new form of literature (though not quite as new as tweeting).
Secondly, as my colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin points out in his Martini Judaism opinion article, Dylan is the 15th Jew to win the Nobel prize in literature whose work is not just literarily profound, but also contains Jewish themes from which he does not restrain himself from expressing. (Now granted – Dylan left Judaism for a moment in his career, became Christian, but his Teshuvah/return to the Tribe has been well documented.)
Yes, we are kvelling. This is good for the Jewish people.
So one disappointment, and one rejoicing in our news cycle for the Jews.
In my imagination, Moses and Bob Dylan are having a conversation over what has happened between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. Moses is telling Dylan how he promised to bring the people into our historical homeland. In Ha’azinu, our Torah portion – Moses says: if you follow God’s ways “you shall prolong your days in this land, when you go over the Jordan River to possess it.”
Moses is telling Bob Dylan that he is anticipating going to see the land from the top of the mountain, but how he will not be able to enter it.
Bob Dylan, in his raspy voice replies to Moses. It is not going to be easy for your people in that land. He sings to Moses a new song, a little bit of prophecy in her lines. A song he entitled “Neighborhood Bully” a reference to how Israel is demonized by others, characterized as a neighborhood bully, when all that Israel is doing is protecting herself.
From the second and third stanza of our Nobel Laureate’s song:
The neighborhood bully just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’ supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully.
The neighborhood bully has been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth and exiled man
Since his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully.
In my imagination, Bob Dylan, this week, on a high from his achievement (you can read that as literal or metaphoric my friends!), is standing with Moses, shaking his head as they read the weekly news together. In the light of the clearly anti-semitic, counter-productive UNESCO decision, using the last stanza of his song, Dylan is singing once again:
What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still.
The imaginary Dylan says to my imaginary Moses: “It is only when people understand that Israel is not a neighborhood bully, but a people with a legitimate story and cause, that the prize of peace, will be theirs in the land that they inherit.”
In an interpretation of our tradition it is said that on Har Sinai, Moses received all of Torah. Torah past and Torah future. He wrote down the beginning of history of the Jewish people and the end of our history at the time of redemption.
I imagine Moses hears our Nobel Prize Winner’s angst, and gives him a big hug. “Let us pray for the final redemption together,” he says. “Speedily and in our own day.”
And they both sing – “Amen”.