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
- Numbers 6:22-27.
- Genesis 28:10-17.
- Written in 1923. Now in the public domain.
- “The Wisdom of Jewish Adulthood,” as posted at https://www.vbs.org/worship/meet-our-clergy/rabbi-ed-feinstein/sermons?post_id=1021118
- 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
- Joel 2:28.
- As quoted in the anthology I Asked for Wonder (1983).