Blame it on a Simple Twist of Fate

Sermon for Shabbat Vayeshev 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, November 26, 2021

Did you know that one of the pivotal characters in the Torah is an unnamed man standing in a field in the middle of nowhere?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that Joseph, at his father Jacob’s behest, has gone in search of his brothers who have headed off to the north country to tend their flocks.  As he ambles around the countryside, “​​וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ”:  an anonymous man happens upon Joseph, and asks him, “What are you looking for?”  Joseph answers, “I’m looking for my brothers.  Can you tell me where they are shepherding?”  Indeed he can.  The man points the way to the territory of Dotan where Joseph encounters his brothers and the real story begins (Gen. 37:12-17).

Now imagine how it might have gone had Joseph not encountered the stranger in the field:  no run-in with his brothers; no colored coat torn from his body and dipped in goat’s blood to fake his death; no pit of terror out of which Joseph was dragged, chained, and sold into slavery; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no help for the beleaguered Egyptians; no safety, survival, or salvation for the starving Israelites, including Joseph’s own family; no Israelite migration to Egypt; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah; no Promised Land, no Jewish People.

The identity of the man who helped Joseph intrigued the Rabbis.  RaSHI insists that he is in fact the angel Gabriel, directing the action as God’s proxy, steering the course of Jewish history from the sidelines (RaSHI to Gen. 37:15).  

RaSHI’s contemporary, Ibn Ezra, said just the opposite:  he’s just a passerby, no more, no less; an ordinary person with ordinary information to share (Ibn Ezra, ad loc).  

It is Nachmanides, the 13th Century Spanish Sage also known as the RaMBaN, who harmonizes the two differing commentators with this resolution:

“The Holy One of Blessing sent Joseph an unwitting guide in order to bring him to his brothers.  That is why the Rabbis said that the man was an angel, in order to teach us that these events were not meaningless, but that God’s will shall prevail” (RaMBaN, ad loc). 

In other words, here we have an ordinary man unwittingly fulfilling God’s plan.

This interpretation is consistent with one Jewish view that angels are not divine beings with halos and wings, but rather human beings carrying out some greater design, even unbeknownst to themselves.  As it turns out, the Hebrew word for angel, “mal’ach,” is the same word for a human messenger.

Still, the fact that an unnamed man in the middle of a field has attracted such Rabbinic attention suggests that Jewish tradition is reluctant to chalk up events of significance to random chance.  There must be a reason for everything, right?   

In Yiddish, we have this wonderful word, bashert, that we use when something (or, more to the point, someone) is “meant to be.”  The word comes from a German root meaning “predestined, fated,” but is usually applied to one’s so-called “soulmate.”  

If I am guilty of any rabbinic misdemeanors, surely among them would be the overuse of this word, particularly when I stand with brides and grooms under the chuppah.  Who wouldn’t love hearing their rabbi affirm that each is the other’s bashert, that the connection between them must be more than merely coincidental? or, at least affirmative of what Einstein once said, that “a coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.”  

Now, if I’m being honest—with myself and with you—I will confess that I’m distrustful of this whole idea of “soulmates,” of “meant to be,” of bashert.  Not just in romance, but in life.   

Still, the idea exerts a strong psychic pull.

Because we are human, we naturally seek, and—lo and behold—perceive patterns, in almost everything life throws our way, even (maybe especially) in the stuff that is totally random.  

The Greeks saw heroes and monsters, sagas, dreams, and oracles in the arrangement of the stars and the planets.  Once you have seen Orion’s belt, you cannot un-see it, even though those three stars all in a row are actually hundreds of light years apart from one another and appear to line up only from our perspective here on earth.   

In psychology, “pattern recognition” describes those thought processes that match information from a stimulus, some external phenomenon, with information retrieved from our memory.  In other words, our brains are particularly good at processing newly received information in connection with information we’ve already stored upstairs.  The ability to recognize patterns is what allows us to predict and expect what may be coming and is therefore evolutionarily adaptive.

The problem is, we humans do pattern recognition so well, so intuitively, so unconsciously, that we tend to perceive patterns—what we think of as “design” or even “meaning”—in that which may be, at the end of the day, totally random:  just, you know, things happening, for no reason whatsoever.  

So much of life, and how we apprehend life, hangs on things that just happen, things that have no intrinsic meaning.  

Speaking of things with no intrinsic meaning.  Last Friday, President Biden did what Presidents do around this time of year, by officially pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey… two turkeys, actually, one named Peanut Butter and the other, Jelly, in a speech replete with good humor and bad puns. 

(“Yes,” he said, referring to the birds’ vaccination status, “instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.”)

Eventually Biden made his way to a solemn coda, speaking of tables “full of grace and gratitude for everyone who made it possible.”  And, he said, “we also keep in our hearts those who… have lost so much, those who will have empty seats at their tables this year because of the virus or another cruel twist of fate or accident.”

“We pray for them to find the strength in sorrow and purpose in pain.”

This, we well know, is one of the areas where Biden’s leadership is most compelling, because it is his lived Torah, his story, the story of a man who has buried a wife and daughter killed in a car accident and a son who died at age forty-six of brain cancer.

The President knows that of which he speaks when he acknowledges how a “cruel twist of fate” (or what the machzor, the High Holiday Prayer Book, calls “ro’a ha-g’zerah, ‘the evil decree’) can rip apart your life in an instant, with no forewarning, leaving a ragged wound where once we held another in our arms, where once we enjoyed health or mobility, where once we drew vitality from all our friends and all our faculties.  Where once we were whole, now there is only a hole.  And there is often nothing that we human beings—we who see patterns in everything—can do, to predict it, avert it, undo it.   

“Blame it on a simple twist of fate,” Bob Dylan memorably sang, in the song whose title, “Simple Twist of Fate,” completes each of the six stanzas, narrating a romantic encounter between two strangers that turns out not to be “meant to be.”  

By chance they meet in darkness, and she departs in darkness, while he is left with an “emptiness inside to which he just could not relate / brought on by a simple twist of fate.”

And yet, in the face of what a friend of mine calls “the monumental indifference of Nature,” we human beings are consigned to our human nature, which is to be meaning-makers.  Moreover, Judaism affirms order, goodness, joy, purpose, and blessing, even in a world whose randomness and errant cruelty are discernable by anyone who is paying attention.  

We Jews are not nihilists; we are, more aptly, existentialists.  

The nihilist says: “all is random; all is meaningless; there can be no right or wrong, good or bad, up or down, so do whatever you like.”  The existentialist says, “there may be no intrinsic meaning in events; but if indeed all is random, then we must figure out how to make life meaningful and good—starting with the ability to define and discover the good in our lives and in the world.”

There is no blueprint for each human life, no plan for what might befall us on any given day.  A random guy standing in a field set the course of Jewish history in motion.  Each of us is shaped as much by our intentional choices as we are by what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  Life isn’t meaningful or meaningless.   We decide what meaning to give it.   

So give thanks, this first day after Thanksgiving, for what good we have, and, even more, for what good we can do; for what blessings we have, and, even more, for what blessings we can give, in a reeling world that so often turns on a simple twist of fate.

May You Stay Forever Young – Shabbat Vayetze 5782

November 12, 2021

Every year around this time, when the leaves are turning and falling in their downward dance of death, I find myself meditating on the theme of getting older. And these thoughts make me sigh. Especially when, as happened, yet again, at a wedding last Saturday night, three separate individuals came up to me, and mentioned that, in their opinion, I did not look old enough to be a rabbi.  

Looking “too young” is, of course, the textbook definition of a “good problem to have,” and it’s one to which I am so long accustomed that it hardly registers anymore.  After conducting my first ever Bar Mitzvah as a rabbi, twenty-one years ago, at Temple Beth-El in Providence, when I actually was a baby rabbi, I stopped by the reception in the social hall, still wearing my tallit and the somber black clerical robe which is the custom of that congregation, ordered a glass of wine, and was promptly carded by the bartender.  

I cannot be sure whether the source of this seemingly perennial issue in my life should be attributed to good luck, good genes, good habits, or some combination thereof, but I have come to regard it as a blessing and not a curse.  

And whenever I hear Bob Dylan sing these words:

May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true / May you always do for others / And let others do for you / May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every young / And may you stay / Forever young

I think to myself, “Bob, my good friend, I’ve got you covered.”

“Forever Young” may well be the most explicitly Biblical song in all of the Torah of Bob, beginning as it does with an echo of the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction from the Book of Numbers1, and including the image of a ladder to the stars, which comes from the first verses of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃ 

Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran.

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ 

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃ 

He dreamed: suddenly there was a ladder stationed on the ground with its top reaching heavenward, and God’s angels going up and down on it!

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ 

Then suddenly Adonai was standing beside him, saying, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.  The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring.”

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃ 

“Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and the east, the north and the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.”

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃ 

“See, I am with you.  I will guard you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ 

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Adonai is in this place, and I did not know it!”

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ 

Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this, the gateway to heaven.”2

Forty-eight years ago this month, in November 1973, when I was, in fact, young, just two months old, Dylan recorded “Forever Young” for another Jakob, his four-year old son, and it ended up on the 1974 album Planet Waves.  

Like the ladder it references, the song’s journey is long and storied; my favorite anecdote is that Howard Cosell recited its lyrics on air when Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight crown for the third time, in September 1978, declaiming, as only Howard Cosell could:

“May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift,” and so on.  

Meanwhile, I’ve been combing the Jewish tradition for some applicable wisdom on how to stay forever young.  In the course of my research, I encountered the famous controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins.  You may have heard it said that in Judaism, a fetus is not considered viable until after it graduates from medical school.  

Embedded in this old joke is a deeper truth about the pain of growing up and the desire to keep our children “forever young.”  Many in our congregation over the last year have shared with me how sweet it felt, at the height of the pandemic, to turn their home into a compound for their grown children to come back home and camp out for weeks or even months, often with significant others and spouses and young children of their own in tow.  Lighting in a bottle, it was—a time that felt, even if only for an instant, like the old days, before the kids became grown-ups, with grown-up-sized responsibilities and problems.  

But even in these strange circumstances which have warped our perception of time, which have blurred the boundaries between home and office, between family nuclear and extended, a time did come for the fantasy to end.  Offices and schools reopened, travel resumed, renovations reached completion, and homes that started out feeling spacious began to feel cramped.  

Robert Frost put it this way:  “Nothing gold can stay.”2

From the moment they cut the umbilical cord, we are teaching our children to grow up.  The trauma of birth affects both parent and child, simultaneously but perhaps not equally.  Abruptly or gradually, both must figure out how to belong to each other without being the owner or the owned.  

All of growing up is figuring out how to be a person in the world—independent, in a sense, yet forever craving connection, relationship, love, attachment.  As a friend of mine brilliantly and succinctly puts it:  “It’s not easy being a person.”

Someone once asked playwright George Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”—a quip that has come down to us in condensed form as “Youth is wasted on the young.”  And perhaps it is so, because we seem to appreciate our youth only when it has fled.  It should come as no surprise that so many of us grown-ups spend so much of our time and psychic energy and money chasing fountains of youth.  

My colleague Rabbi Ed Feinstein who works in Los Angeles (where this tendency is particularly conspicuous) says, “Think of all that’s sold to us with the promise of making us look younger and feel younger. Younger is better. Ever see anything offered to make you look older in just minutes a day? (Yes, children.)”

“…No matter how cheery and bright and clever those ads for Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, we can read the subtext:  At this age you can’t do what once came so naturally.  Not without strong medicinal intervention.”3

The allure to stay forever young keeps hair colorists, plastic surgeons, and sports car dealers gainfully employed.  And yet, most of us understand that none of these will keep us vital on the inside, at the soul-level, where it really counts.

And that, I think, is what Dylan may have had in mind when he sang, 

May you build a ladder to the stars / And climb on every rung / And may you stay / Forever young

Dylan is not praying for the impossible—to remain wrinkle-free, with shiny hair and sturdy bones (I mean, have you seen the man lately?)—so much as he is inviting us to consider a life of spiritual vitality, a soul that remains youthful even as the years go by.  

Judaism proposes a means which this can be achieved, a way to “stay forever young,” at least spiritually speaking, even when we are chronologically or biologically old.  

It’s a simple thing, really.  We must retain the capacity to dream, especially as we age.  

Beginning this week with Jacob, dreaming emerges as a Biblical leitmotif, moving the Jewish story forward:  Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the heavens, with angels going up and down, brings him powerfully into relationship with God for the first time in his life, a relationship that will persist, even though it goes through many stages and changes, for the rest of his life.  

His son Joseph is the Bible’s great dreamer and dream-interpreter, capable of translating dreams into actions that will save lives and shape the destiny of the Jewish People.  The Book of Daniel is largely a record of symbolic dreams foretelling the fate of empires.  And many Biblical Prophets encountered God through dreams and visions, and transformed these experiences into the ethical wisdom that would give Judaism its eternally relevant voice in shaping a just and humane world. 

I’m sure many of you have read the fascinating cover piece from this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, which is all about dreams.  At the center of the article lies an exploration of the pandemic which seems to have inspired, across the globe, a surge in vivid and provocative dreams possibly linked to the jarring experience we have been sharing.  

Long before Covid, Deirdre Barrett, the scientist of dreams profiled in the article, noted that dreams have long been associated with creativity.  Dreams were credited as the direct origin of, to name a few examples, Jasper Johns’s painting “Flag,” the author E.B. White’s character Stuart Little, the plot of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Beatles song “Yesterday,” the first ironclad battleship, the scientific breakthrough that earned researchers the 1936 Nobel Prize in Medicine and—though this one may be apocryphal—the structure of the periodic table.4

The Prophet Joel describes the spirit of God entering humanity by promising that “the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions”5, a verse tunefully enshrined by Debbie Friedman of blessed memory.  

In other words, our dreams are a way of keeping God alive within us:  the uniquely human spark of creativity, the uniquely human capacity for hope and possibility, the ability to imagine, to visualize a future of the way things could be, the way things ought to be (instead of the way they are).  

In this country, we still speak of the “American Dream,” although lately it usually comes up in the negative:  dream interrupted, a broken dream, a dream that is no longer a dream (much less a reality), and, perennially for many, less a dream and more a nightmare.  

Aware of all of this, I still find inspiration in those who are keeping the dream alive.  

On Halloween, our new favorite ice cream parlor, Ice Cream Social on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, was offering a free scoop for anyone who showed up in costume.  

So I drove straight there from a wedding and met Kelly who had brought a bag of goofy hats and masks and accessories and two cherished friends, Mariam and Achta Ali-Khamis, the refugee sisters who arrived in the US in 2018 with WRT’s initiative and assistance and who have been steadily climbing the ladder, one rung at a time, ever since, and who live near the ice cream parlor.  

I cannot fathom the trauma that Achta and Mariam endured in their brutally wartorn home country, the Central African Republic, or the subsequent five years in a refugee encampment in neighboring Chad, much less the strength of will required to come to America knowing no one, not speaking the language, leaving behind a family including an aging mother, siblings and nieces and nephews, as Black Muslim refugees.  And then to come here and after less than two years to have life paralyzed by Covid—I stand in awe. 

And yet here they are, speaking English beautifully, employed and advancing in work, financially independent, currently pursuing better employment and housing of their own initiative.  

Yes, they are climbing with their own hard work and determination; but without the capacity to dream, the whole enterprise crumbles.  

And if Mariam and Achta can “build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,” why not we?  Who made it a rule that at some point in life, the responsible thing to do, the grown-up thing to do, is to tuck our imaginations away in some unattended drawer, to lay our dreams to rest?  

And so here we are tonight, to do what we do on Shabbat, which is, to pray.  Let our prayers never become a rote exercise in repeating Hebrew words.  Prayers are dreams given voice.  Remember what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, that “to pray is to dream in league with God.”6  

Every time we open our mouths in prayer, let it be with dreams of a life filled with joy, with purpose, and with transformative potential—for ourselves and for the world.  

When we pray, let it be because we still remember how to dream.  

And if you can do that, I promise you, you may indeed stay

forever young.


  1. Numbers 6:22-27.
  2. Genesis 28:10-17.
  3. Written in 1923. Now in the public domain.
  4. “The Wisdom of Jewish Adulthood,” as posted at https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-ed-feinstein/sermons?post_id=1021118
  5. Paraphrasing from “Did Covid Change How We Dream?” New York Times Magazine, Sunday, November 7, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/03/magazine/pandemic-dreams.html
  6. Joel 2:28.
  7. As quoted in the anthology I Asked for Wonder (1983).

IT’S ALL OVER NOW: Reflections for the Last Shabbat of 5781

A note to my readers:

I sketched this D’var Torah for Shabbat services on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, September 3, 2021, and extemporaneously delivered remarks that resemble those presented below. Recently (in November 2021), I went back and reconstructed the following message from my original notes.

– JEB

Shabbat Shalom and a very happy Labor Day weekend to all.

We gather here tonight on the cusp of a new Jewish year. Rosh Ha-Shanah begins on Monday evening and therefore this is the last Sabbath of the year 5781.  At this Season of Awe, we are charged by our tradition to consider deeply what we want to change—in our lives, in our souls, in our patterns of behavior (call them “habits”), in our relationships, in our communities and in our world. 

To quote our siddur:  “This is the hour of change.”1  

I’ve heard it said that “Everything is always evolving, thus, by definition, everything is always changing.  Yet many of us resist change.  We prefer the comfort of the status quo and get distressed when things meet their natural end” (attributed to Thom Knoles).

Everything is always evolving, always changing—like it or not.  This is a basic fact, a natural law of existence. 

The Vedas are an ancient body of wisdom (indeed, the oldest of the Hindu Scriptures) that are intended to provide a human interpretation of so-called “natural law.”

These texts invite the reader, the one who contemplates their teachings, to recognize all aspects of the evolutionary process:  creation, maintenance, and destruction… and to do so not reluctantly but with reverence. 

It is taught that “understanding the role of all three [aspects], and the interdependence of all three, is essential to living a carefree, yet practical and evolutionary life” (Knoles).  We need to honor the role of creation, maintenance, and destruction in our own journeys of spiritual evolution, of human progress, our own journeys of life in which all three forces will, in ways both seen and unseen by us, operate and interact.2

Consider the first vector or operator, that of creation.  Creation is the theme we most commonly associate with Rosh Ha-Shanah, with this time of year.  It’s probably the easiest for us to wrap our heads and hearts around.  Our Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy is replete with images of pregnancy and giving birth. We sing Hayom Harat Olam, “today the world is born anew”; alternatively translated, “Today all of existence is pregnant with possibility.”  Some even say that the sound of the shofar evokes a baby wailing as it is being born.

Now consider the middle vector or operator, the function of maintenance.  There is more than one reason that we naturally resist change.  One is because we prefer the comfort of the status quo.  I think most of us, in contemplating our lives, are naturally inclined toward an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Things are good… enough.  Why upset the apple cart?  We also resist change because, as has been said, we “get distressed when things meet their natural end” (Knoles).  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And yet, there can be no evolution—of the self, of the soul, of the society, of the world—without “breaking” some stuff.  Without destruction.  Or, at the very least, without acknowledging that there comes a time when a thing, a life, a process, a relationship, may have outlived its useful function (in its current form) and so must end that incarnation in order for something new to be created.  Ask your friend the caterpillar about this.

And if Rosh Ha-Shanah is the “creation” holiday, then surely Yom Kippur is the “destruction” holiday: the observance on the Jewish calendar that invites us to consider what we need to let go, to give up, to allow to be put to rest forever, in order for us to evolve.  It is often pointed out that all of Yom Kippur is an emulation of death, a rehearsal for death of sorts:  we wear white, like the traditional Jewish burial shrouds or takhrikhin; we empty the holy ark of its Torah scrolls so that it becomes an empty box.  (It bears noting that the word for “ark” in Hebrew is aron which is the same word used for a casket.)  We take in no food or drink; we eschew all forms of material comfort; we do not procreate.  We beat our chests over the heart as if trying to perform CPR on a soul that has become spiritually deadened.  

With that in mind, I thought it would make sense on this Shabbat that anticipates the Yamim Nora’im, the Jewish season of awe, to spend some time contemplating how destruction functions in the process of spiritual evolution, how we can embrace destruction as a necessary component of our human and Jewish journeys, and to encounter the destruction operator when it shows up in our lives as an important (if not always immediately welcome) presence.  That will be our focus for tonight, and our homework for the coming Days of Awe.

When I speak of “destruction” in this context, I must emphasize that we are not necessarily talking about violence or wreckage (although we might be).  Another way to think about destruction in the evolutionary cycle is when things reach their natural or logical end, and, without this ending, evolution will be inhibited rather than encouraged.

Kelly gave me a great analogy here. The main function of a fingernail, she pointed out, is, of course, to protect the fingertip.  It can even be used, if it’s long enough, as a weapon or tool or to pick the strings of a guitar or harp and make beautiful music.  Evolutionarily speaking (and I mean this in the Darwinian sense), fingernails are amazing developments.  

But, at a certain point, a fingernail will outgrow its usefulness.  Not only will it become unsightly, it will also become unwieldy, impractical, hard to maintain, more of a hazard than a help.

At that point, it’s time to trim back, to cut, to prune, to destroy.

I think of how we do our best work at WRT.  Each year our staff and volunteer leaders invest a ton of energy in brainstorming—an act of creation itself—around the question, “What shall we create?  What will we build this year?  What new programs, initiatives, engagements can we actualize?” 

Much harder, though, are the conversations around, “What will we destroy?  What should we get rid of?  What has outlived its usefulness?” Many of us dislike this part of the conversation so much that we use a euphemism instead of destroy:  “What programs are we willing to sunset this year?” invoking something conventionally beautiful instead of something dead, defunct, destroyed.

Other analogies grow from the agricultural realm.  The gardeners among us may appreciate that if you prune back a flowering shrub, it will call forth more blossoms.

Ancient societies, including that of the Israelites, mandated years when the land would lie fallow, and no planting, no new creation of produce, was permitted.  The practice encourages new and better growth as a result, but only after refraining from planting and harvesting.  Such idle years are called shemitta, meaning fallow or inactive, and traditional Jewish communities to this day keep track of a seven-year cycle of shemitta years.3  It just so happens that the coming Jewish year, 5782, is a shemitta year, so it seems all the more apt for us to focus now, of all times, on the destruction operator.  

Even the coming Labor Day holiday, and, for that matter, the whole point of every Shabbat, comments powerfully on the notion that we can’t spend every waking moment of our lives working, doing, making, creating.  Periodically, we need to allocate time and space for maintenance and even destruction, at least in the sense of a reset.

Two texts illustrate all of these points.  The first is from the Torah and the second, of course, is from the Torah of Bob.  

The first text comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim

Before they go on without him to the Promised Land, Moses warns the Israelites:

You know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt, and how we passed through the midst of those nations that you traversed.  You have seen the detestable objects, the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold, that they keep.

Even now, perhaps there is among you some man or a woman, some clan or a tribe, whose heart is turning away from Adonai our God, to go and worship the gods of those nations.  Perhaps there is among you a root sprouting poison weed and wormwood.

When such a one hears the words of this warning, that person may fancy him or herself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, even though I follow my own willful heart”—which would be utterly ruinous.4

Adonai will never forgive such a person.  Rather will Divine anger and passion rage against that person until every warning recorded in this Book comes to pass, and Adonai blots out that one’s name from under heaven.5

Whoa.  It’s a real showstopper, this final warning from Moses to the people about the seduction of idolatry and the destruction that awaits anyone who strays.  But notice that the seduction of idolatry is rooted, specifically, in nostalgia for the past, for what the people knew in Egypt, in the old days, the days of slavery.  The old status quo.  

God demands an utter rejection of what the people knew.  Time and again the Torah warns the people not to turn back to Egypt, not to give into the pull to stick with what was familiar and, even—though brutal for the Israelite slaves—in a weird but relatable way, what was comforting.  

Time and again the Torah demands that the Israelites not just turn away from idolatry, from the old ways and the old gods, but that they smash the idols into dust, burn the foreign shrines, utterly destroy all the old forms and places of worship. 

Only after welcoming the destruction operator can the people spiritually evolve.  Note well that we are approaching the very end of the scroll.  Soon Moses will exit the stage.  He knows he is about to die.  This is his last chance to help his people change and grow and move forward, to evolve.  And it can come about only with a measure of destruction.

The second text is the song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a beautiful and enigmatic song from 1965 that is also, significantly, the last song on the album Bringing it All Back Home, which itself marks a dramatic transition from, or, more aptly, a sharp break with, Dylan’s acoustic folksinger identity, and introduces the listener to a new Dylan, the electric Dylan, the rock-and-roll Dylan.  

The song, which is full of destructive, even apocalyptic imagery, begins like this:

You must leave now

Take what you need you think will last

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun

Crying like a fire in the sun

As if preaching to himself, Dylan embraces the destruction operator and emerges an artist transformed:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you,

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.6

 

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Mishkan T’filah, 149.
  2. In the Vedas, each of these forces or operators is assigned a corresponding deity. Creation corresponds to Brahman, Maintenance to Vishnu, and Destruction to Shiva.
  3. See Leviticus 25:3-6, Deuteronomy 15:1-2.
  4. Literally, “to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike.” This sort of literary antithesis is a common rhetorical feature of the Book of Deuteronomy.
  5. Deuteronomy 29:15-19.
  6. Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music.