As a public-schooled, flannel-shirted Yankee at an uber-aristocratic southern university ruled by the prep-schooled scions of Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee, I played the grooves out of Tom Petty’s 1979 breakthrough album, Damn the Torpedoes. From my first listen, I completely identified with Petty’s grainy voice and scrappy cast of characters, who were always a little down but determinedly not quite out. Petty was the balladeer of folks who consistently come up a little short: the American girl, raised on promises, who “couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else”; the free-fallin’ good girls and bad boys lurking in the shadows behind the fancy shops on Ventura Boulevard; every dogged dreamer who “ain’t got wings” but is nonetheless learning to fly and inevitably discovering that “comin’ down is the hardest thing.” I’ve loved Tom Petty for four decades, because more than any other rock star, he spoke up for those who the powers that be dismissed as losers. As TP put it—against the gorgeous background of the Heartbreakers’ surging organ swells and twelve-string jangle—Even the losers get lucky sometimes. Even the losers keep a little bit of pride.
Tom Petty’s embrace of losing as a badge of pride is profoundly counter-cultural in today’s America. Our president throws out the word “loser” with utmost scorn; for Donald Trump, there is nothing worse. But the Torah is with Tom Petty. Our sacred text is full of noble losers; virtually no one in its pages gets all of what they want. This week, as the Jewish community celebrates Simchat Torah, we will conclude the book of Deuteronomy and begin again with the story of Creation. Both passages pay homage to sacred losers: Moses dies after failing to convince God to let him enter the Promised Land, then humanity is evicted from Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. From the first to the last, Torah reads like a Tom Petty playlist, with account after account of men and women who fall short but muster the grit to get back up and, against all odds, keep on trying.
Donald Trump doesn’t like losers, amongst whom he numbers the free press, football players taking a knee, half of his own party, and, essentially, anyone who disagrees with him. But God and Torah love the losers, because the losers are us.
So did Tom Petty.
Rest in peace, TP.
And chag sameach, all.