Every Grain of Sand

Shabbat Vayigash 5782

Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, December 10, 2021

If you haven’t been following the recent serial drama known as the weekly Torah portion, a recap is in order:

Joseph, the boy dreamer, has risen to an improbable position of power and prestige in Egypt.  There, as Pharaoh’s vice-regent, he oversees food distribution in a time of severe famine.

Joseph’s long-estranged brothers, who had sold him into slavery years before, now arrive as supplicants, begging for food.  They do not recognize the imposing figure with the long beard and royal garments and fluent command of Egyptian who now sits enthroned before them, but Joseph certainly recognizes them.  

Taking advantage of this twist of fate, Joseph devises a test of character for the brothers who had once so brutally mistreated him.  He demands that they go back to Canaan to fetch their youngest brother, Benjamin, the only source of comfort in their father’s life after losing Joseph.  What the mighty vizier intends to do with Benjamin at that point is anyone’s guess, but the risk of him coming to harm is significant.

Their father, Jacob, naturally, is horrified.  He fears the worst:  that history will repeat itself.

But the brothers are starving so back to Egypt they go, Benjamin in tow.  After much palace intrigue, including a trumped-up charge of theft, Joseph arrests young Benjamin, announcing that he will be sentenced to slavery.

With that as last week’s cliff-hanger, we now arrive at this week’s portion, Vayigash.  An older brother, Judah, steps forward to intervene on Benjamin’s behalf:  Take me instead, he pleads.  “I myself will be the boy’s guarantee.”  This is Judah’s defining moment, putting himself in harm’s way for the sake of Benjamin.  And it is this turn of events that moves Joseph to reveal his true identity:  אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י — Weeping, he exclaims, “I am Joseph.  Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3) 

Commenting on the Joseph story just two weeks ago, I highlighted the role that random chance–or, as Bob Dylan called it, “a simple twist of fate”–plays in this saga.  Indeed, like few other narratives in the Hebrew Bible, God seems to operate at a remove from the action.

For Joseph’s ancestors–Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah–God commands, God speaks, God appears in dreams and visions.  Like a marionettist, God pulls the strings.  God announces that Sarah will give birth in old age, sends Abraham up the mountain to sacrifice his son, appears to Jacob at a ladder and as a messenger who wrestles in the night.  

But up until this point in the Joseph story, God is, curiously, kept at arm’s length, moving the plot forward explicitly a total of three times:  once, when Joseph advances as chief steward in the house of the Egyptian army captain Potiphar, and the text reports, “Adonai was with Joseph, and he became a successful man” (Gen. 39:2) and again, after Joseph is arrested on a trumped-up rape accusation by Potiphar’s wife, and the text reports, twice in a row, that “God was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:21), enabling him to find favor with the chief jailer, earning his trust in order to supervise the other inmates.  

Then God disappears again, returning only when it comes time for Jacob to be reunited with his long-lost son.  God appears in a nighttime vision, directing the aging patriarch to journey down to Egypt.  

But as for Joseph, it bears mention that God does not speak to him directly, not once, keeping silent throughout the entire story, save for those brief third-person references to divine assistance in Potiphar’s house and in the jailhouse.

Except, God is actually all over the Joseph story, but only as seen through the eyes of Joseph.  

Everything that Joseph experiences–every “simple twist of fate”–Joseph himself describes not as random chance, but rather as the hand of God.  

Joseph’s uncanny ability to understand dreams?  “Surely God will interpret,” says the seer (Gen. 40:8).  When Pharaoh credits Joseph’s talent, he demurs:  “Not I!  It is God who looks after Pharaoh’s wellbeing” (Gen. 41:16).  Even Pharaoh agrees:  “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so wise and discerning as you” (Gen. 41:39).  

From Joseph’s perspective, “a simple twist of fate” has nothing to do with his fate; everything has come about by God’s design. 

By the time we reach this week’s parasha, nearly every line spoken by Joseph gives attribution to God.  When Joseph reveals his true identity, and the brothers tremble that he will now exact his revenge, Joseph assures them:

“Now, do not be distressed.  Don’t blame yourselves for selling me here; it was in order to save life that God sent me ahead of you.…  God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  You see, it was not in fact you who sent me here, but God, who has made me like a father-figure to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, ruler over the whole land of Egypt.  So hurry back to my father and say to him:  ‘Thus says your son Joseph, “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me without delay’” (Gen. 45:5, 7-8).

In a near-Godless story, the hero is saturated in the awareness of God.  

If you’ve studied American history, then the name Roger Williams may be familiar.  Roger Williams was a minister and theologian who founded Providence Plantations, which became the Colony, and eventual State, of Rhode Island, where my parents reside and where fried calamari with hot peppers is the official State Appetizer.  (My dad enthuses over Rhode Island arcana and will appreciate this reference.) 

In any case, Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations after fleeing religious persecution from the Puritans in Massachusetts, and, in 1638, established the First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, a testament to his commitment to religious freedom.  He named his new home in honor of “God’s merciful Providence” which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven.  For Williams, his success was not his own; nor was it attributable to mere good fortune or fate.  It was Divine Providence.

Two centuries later, an influential English Baptist preacher named Charles Spurgeon would clarify the difference:  “Fate,” he said, “is blind; providence has eyes.  Fate is … just an arrow shot from a bow, that must fly onward, but hath no target. Not so, providence; providence is full of eyes.  There is a design in everything, and an end to be answered; all things are working together, and working together for good.”   

Often when people tell me that they “don’t believe in God,” my inclination is to respond, “Maybe God isn’t the issue.  Maybe you’re just using the wrong verb.”  God isn’t something you believe in or don’t believe in; God is a way of describing a perspective on your life and the meaning of events in our lives.  God is a way of framing how we understand what life hands us, how we experience our time on earth.  

Perhaps had an atheist founded Rhode Island, the capital city would have been called “Luck,” which happens to be a village in Wisconsin, population 1,227, and whose welcome sign declares, “You’re in Luck.”  Or, maybe it’d be called “Fate,” which happens to be a town in Texas about the same population as Scarsdale.  But, no, Roger Williams’ perspective on the events of his life, like Joseph’s, always ran through God.

As for me, in my role as rabbi, I have little interest in getting people to believe in God.  I do, however, have a vested interest in helping people locate God in the experiences of their lives, helping people find, or, more aptly, construct, meaning, from whatever life hands us.  The question is not, “do you believe in God?” but rather, “How might God be showing up in your life?”  

Is this just a matter of semantics?  Maybe, but also maybe not.  Consider:  have you ever had an experience that made you feel connected to something bigger than yourself?  In synagogue?  In a concert hall?  In the mountains?  In the ocean?  Looking out an airplane window?  In a hospital room?  Under the chuppah?  By a loved one’s grave?  Alone, in the dark?  With the one person who loves you and understands you better, perhaps, than you understand yourself?  I have.  Some people feel comfortable talking about these experiences as “God moments.”  

I do.

Joseph did.  

And, oh, of course, Bob Dylan does.

Like the Joseph saga, God is all over the words of Bob Dylan too, nowhere more than in the song “Every Grain of Sand,” which closes his 1981 Album Shot of Love and which I had the epic pleasure of hearing him sing, two nights in a row, the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, as the final song in his current tour’s setlist.  

For a fan, hearing Dylan sing “Every Grain of Sand” is kind of like having heard Leonard Cohen sing “Hallelujah” — it is more than a song; it’s a religious hymn.  Its lines echo Biblical verses, both our Testament (“Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break”) and the Christian Testament (“Then onward in my journey I come to understand/That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand,” directly quoting from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 10:30).)  

It also plays off of secular verse, albeit from other God-saturated writers, like William Blake whose poem “Auguries of Innocence” begins:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour

Like the Biblical Joseph, Dylan surveys the events of his life, both the choices he has made (including the mistakes), and the things that have come to him through no choice of his own, and, looking back, all he sees is God:  

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand

In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

It is just as a Hasidic Master once said in the name of his teacher, the famous Maggid of Mezritch:

In everything that you perceive in the world, you will come to see only the Blessed One, whose powers animate everything, so much so, that you will eventually realize that even you are in fact nothing without the power of the Blessed One, who is giving you life even in this present moment, and that there is nothing else!

In other words:  Everything is God, ואין עוד (“ein od”), “and there is none else.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Favorite Albums of the Year, 2021

Hello all my friends,


It’s been another year of listening to music and rigorously cataloging all of the albums that I enjoyed. Some more than others, to be sure, but each of the 90+ (!!) recordings below is worth lending your ears. In all honesty, I was a bit skeptical that 2021 would produce enough worth hearing, based on a pretty sluggish start (supply chain issues, perhaps?), but by summer things started to come around, and it’s been a banner fall for new music. Most of these are available on streaming services and I’m happy to assemble a best-of end-of-year Spotify playlist for anyone who is interested.


Another couple of notes. First, I want you to know that while my musical tastes run toward the omnivorous, hip-hop is underrepresented on this list. That’s just a matter of personal taste and I am always willing to listen to anyone’s recommendations. But this is more of a “favorite” albums list rather than a “best” albums list. Secondly, I want to share that, despite the length of this list, and the extensive comments on my top ten choices (you have to scroll down pretty far to see that), most of my listening in 2021 was to classical music, and, as a corroborating point, the only print music publication to which I currently subscribe is Gramophone magazine, so there’s that.


Finally, a few honorable mentions: the focus of the 90 albums on my list below, and especially of the top ten, is on new music, so I don’t generally honor albums of covers (the Alison Kraus/Robert Plant album “Raise the Roof,” #59 below, which, I think, is mostly covers, is one notable exception), live albums, or EPs. With that in mind, here’s a few that made HONORABLE MENTION:


Jarvis Cocker, Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top (covers)

Patricia Barber, Clique (covers)

Samantha Crain, I Guess We Live Here Now (EP)

Frank Zappa, Zappa ‘88: The Last US Concerts (live)

Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version) (“covers,” in a matter of speaking)Fatma Said, El Nour (Classical, therefore “covers,” but AMAZING)

Bob Dylan, Springtime in New York (bootleg/live/etc.)

Wilco, Roadcase (3 live concerts in Port Chester from October 2014)

Radiohead, Kid AMnesia (the repackaged 2 albums from 2000-2001 with outtakes, etc.)

Beach House, Once Twice Melody (parts 1 & 2) (full album will be released in Februrary but half of it is already online, so check it out)

——

Ok, patient readers. Here’s the list.Happy New Year and stay safe out there.- JEB
90. Jon Batiste, We Are

89. Rose City Band, Earth Trip

88. Manic Street Preachers, The Ultra Vivid Lament

87. John Grant, Boy from Michigan

86. Tyler, The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost

85. Laura Mvula, Pink Noise

84. Daniel Lanois, Heavy Sun

83. Mogwai, As the Love Continues

82. Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun

81. Bedouine, Waysides
80. The Marías, CINEMA

79. Badbadnotgood, Signal From The Noise

78. Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade

77. Squid, Bright Green Field

76. Matthew E. White, K Bay

75. Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses

74. Aeon Station, Observatory

73. Charlie Marie, Ramble On

72. Valerie June, The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

71. Jane Weaver, Flocks
70. Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha

69. Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More

68. Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming

67. Vanishing Twin, Ookii Gekkou

66. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview of Phenomenal Nature

65. Felice Brothers, From Dream to Dust

64. Joan As Police Woman, The Solution is Restless

63. Amy Speace with The Orphan Brigade, There Used to Be Horses Here

62. The Black Keys, Delta Kream

61. Yasmin Williams, Underwood
60. Sarah Jarosz, Blue Heron Suite

59. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raise the Roof

58. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

57. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice

56. The Weather Station, Ignorance

55. The Coral, Coral Island

54. Dawn Richard, Second Line

53. Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa

52. David Crosby, For Free

51. Israel Nash, Topaz
50. James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds

49. Michael Mayo, Bones

48. Menahan Street Band, The Exciting Sounds of Menahan

47. Daniel Knox, Won’t You Take Me With You

46. Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

45. Julie Doiron, I Thought of You

44. (2 albums) Andrew Marlin, Fable & Fire and The Witching Hour

43. Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders, Promises

42. Deafheaven, Infinite Granite

41. Matt Berry, The Blue Elephant
40. CHVRCHES, Screen Violence

39. April March, In Cinerama (vinyl only 😢 )

38. Phoebe Hunt & Gatherers, Neither One of Us is Wrong

37. Marissa Nadler, The Path of the Clouds

36. Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days

35. Mal Devisa, Wisdom Teeth

34. Elbow, Flying Dream 1

33. Adele, 30

32. Richard Dawson & Circle, Henki

31. Macie Stewart, Mouth Full of Glass
30. Lucy Dacus, Home Video

29. Olivia Rodrigo, Sour

28. Daphne Gale, Nomadder

27. Low, Hey What

26. Miloš Karadaglić, The Moon and the Forest

25. Hans Zimmer, Dune (Original Soundtrack)

24. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

23. Sufjan Stevens and Angelo Deaugustine, A Beginner’s Mind

22. Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour

21. Yebba, Dawn
20. Sam Fender, Seventeen Going Under

19. Iron Maiden, Senjutsu

18. Houedia Hedfi, Fleuves de l’Âme

17. Entertainment, Death, Spirit of the Beehive

16. Mike and the Moonpies, One to Grow On

15. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

14. Lindsey Buckingham (self-titled)

13. Ryley Walker, Course in Fable

12. Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take

11. Lord Huron, Long Lost

10. Béla Fleck, My Bluegrass Heart
I’m so glad I finally got around to listening to this sprawling collection of originals by the incomparable banjo doyen Fleck, and that hearing My Bluegrass Heart has now occasioned a down-the-rabbit-hole journey into his genre-defying back catalog. This latest offering completes a trilogy of bluegrass numbers that draw on the prodigious talents of best-in-field collaborators, recorded at almost generational intervals (Drive, 1987; The BlueGrass Sessions: Tales from The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, 1999; and now My Bluegrass Heart). This time around, Fleck is joined by an all-star cast of musicians, including the 28-year-old flatpick guitar whiz Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Jerry Douglas, Noam Pikelny, Edgar Meyer, and of course, the one mandolin king to rule them all, Chris Thile (Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek). As such this album is far and away the most important and pacesetting new bluegrass release in years, with compositions and virtuosic playing to exceed even the highest expectations of its luminary cast. Having said that, at first I found the compositions a bit cold and mathematical, even, in the vein of early Punch Brothers’ work, but as the album blazes its trail, a vibrant joy and warm glow emerges from these players who are clearly having the time of their lives, doing what they love.


9. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar (b. Mahamadou Souleyman) is a songwriter and musician based in Agadez, Niger, who is ethnically of the Tuareg tribal tradition (The Tuareg is a large Berber ethnic group that inhabits the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.) The musical traditions of the Tuareg are the stuff of legend, and Mdou Moctar is their Jimi Hendrix. He first came to attention through live recordings traded across a wide swath of the African continent via SIM cards, and broke into Western audiences around 2019 with his 4th album, Ilana: The Creator. Now American label Matador has picked him up and on Afrique Victime, he comes into full bloom with expressive songs laced with ripping guitar solos that are both virtuosic in their technique and gripping in their emotional force. The album is sung almost entirely in Moctar’s native Tamasheq language, though parts (including the name of the album and its title song) are sung in French. The heart of the album, title track “Afrique Victime,” is a searing protest song against colonialist violence that catalogs the sufferings and abuses perpetrated against his home continent.


8. Mood Valiant, Hiatus Kaiyote
Ten years after forming in Melbourne, Australia, progressive jazz-funk band Hiatus Kaiyote hits its high-water mark with its latest release, a brilliant set performed with verve and exacting musicianship (that never gets stuffy, formal, or in the way of the music). This is what we’d call a “musician’s musicians” kind of band, and it’s phenomenal to hear such players firing on all cylinders in an era that has TikTok-ified music into lame, lazy gruel.


7. Snail Mail, Valentine
More like, “bruised Valentine,” to be sure. Lindsey Jordan (age 22), the singer-songwriter and wickedly talented shredder who records as “Snail Mail” turns in her sophomore album to deserved acclaim. Incisive, intimate, and lacerating, “Valentine” is an archetypal breakup album for the 21st century, with a musical language that nods to its 90s influences but whose rock-solid comfort in its queer perspective marks it as of its own time and place.


6. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage
Let us assume that Nick Cave, gothic rock royalty, needs no introduction. His frequent collaborator Warren Ellis is Cave’s leading “Bad Seed,” artistic foil, multi-instrumentalist and Cave’s spiritually conjoined twin. Together they have “surprise released” this gem of an album, generated in the depths of isolation while the pandemic rampaged outside, and accompanied by a tour where the two of them took these mutant songs out on the road to share them with rapt audiences (I am told). With every recording, Cave’s mastery of language and feeling grows more apparent, and his willingness to meditate on the darkness at the heart of the human condition is brave and necessary. These are some really weird and wonderful songs that I can’t stop listening to.


5. Madlib, Sound Ancestors
Mind-blown moment: first hearing Madvillainy (2004), the legendary hip-hop collab between musically omnivorous crate-digger Madlib (producer) and MF Doom (rapper), the famously eccentric and reclusive artist who rarely appeared in public without his trademark metallic “Dr. Doom” mask and who, in a dramatic gesture of poetic irony, died on Halloween 2020. Madlib operates chiefly as a collaborator and usually has his hands on numerous projects at the same time; rare is the occasion for him to record under his own “name” (real name: Otis Jackson Jr.). And this album, too, is a collaboration, with Four Tet (Kieran Hebden, genius electronic music artist and producer), who arranged, edited and mastered the “songs” (more aptly, “sound collages,” my term) by his prolific counterpart. Permit me a bit of synesthesia but this album is as dank as a street in 2021 New York City’s Lower East Side smells. The result is an almost atavistic display of sampling prowess, where the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.


4. Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince
Arooj Aftab is a Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer, composer, and producer who has worked in the electronic music scene and who holds degrees in Music Production and Engineering and Jazz Composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I hate genre classifications altogether, but you’ll hear in her album “Vulture Prince” an immersive and expansive (headphones, please!) amalgam Jazz, dub, and what is best described as “Neo-Sufi” idioms. The album frames a journey from the despair of bereavement (her younger brother Maher died during the process of writing the album) to the beauty and sorrow of acceptance. The music, and the feeling it conveys, are both timeless and timely.


3. The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
With every successive album, Philly-based rockers The War on Drugs, whose lead voice and architect, Adam Granduciel, projects a heart-on-the sleeve kind of rock that evokes Springsteen and Mellencamp (and perhaps a more tuneful Dylan), have grown clearer and less cluttered in their songs. There’s still a motorik precision to what they’re doing, with elaborate, Krautrock-ish layers of guitar and synth coloring in between the lines, but on “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” what stands out is the cleanness of melody and the epic build to grand choruses framing simple, yearning sentiments. Put this on in your car and drive toward the horizon.


2. Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren
Hands down, the most emotionally affecting songwriting I’ve heard all year. Country-Folk songstress Emily Scott Robinson fully comes into her own on this, her third full-length recording. Quoting from her press kit (yes, I’m cheating here, but these reviews take time!): “Colorado songwriter Emily Scott Robinson beckons to those who are lost, lonely, or learning the hard way with American Siren, her first album for Oh Boy Records. With hints of bluegrass, country, and folk, the eloquent collection shares her gift for storytelling through her pristine soprano and the perspective of her unconventional path into music.” The fact that Oh Boy Records picked up this artist is worth highlighting. (Again quoting): “Oh Boy Records is an independent record label located in Nashville, Tennessee. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the company was founded in 1981 by multiple Grammy Award winner, singer-songwriter, John Prine, and his manager and business partner, Al Bunetta. The label is run by the Prine family, and is the second oldest artist-run independent label in the U.S. The label continues to expand its catalog with a dedication to authentic voices, giving songwriters a platform to create art while speaking their truth.” Well, they could not have picked a better spiritual heir to the epic legacy of John Prine: an amazing storyteller, wise beyond her years, and every line speaks truth—whether autobiographical or invented.


1. Daniel Romano’s Outfit, Cobra Songs
It’s a joy for me to give the number one spot this year to an album that seems barely to have registered on the radar of the critical cognoscenti, an album so perfect that its omission from end-of-year best-of lists is, in a word, criminal. The fact that a talent as prodigious, with an output so prolific, as Daniel Romano, continues to toil away in obscurity is only one more indictment of the shameful state of our cultural affairs but so it goes. To the music: like fellow Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers (whom I had the robust pleasure of hearing in concert earlier this month, at Webster Hall in NYC, reprising their magnum opus Twin Cinema (2005) in its entirety as the first set of a top-to-bottom hair-raisingly good show), Romano is steeped in the power-pop tradition of the likes of The Zombies and Big Star, but with an astonishing range of other influences as well; check out his extensive back catalog and you’ll see that Romano’s first recordings recreate the classic “countrypolitan” sound with astonishing precision and panache, before stepping out in to more “Modern Sounds” like New Wave, punk, and… and, well, there’s really nothing Romano can’t do. Enjoy a 10/10 perfect album from a group that I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of. You’re welcome.