Sunday, June 26, 2011

Like a Rolling Stone (Idaho Statesman Column June 2011)

Last month marked the seventieth birthday of my favorite contemporary Jewish poet, prophet, and iconoclast—Bob Dylan. In honor of that occasion, Rolling Stone published a lengthy piece ranking Dylan’s seventy greatest songs. It is no surprise that “Like a Rolling Stone” tops the list; many music-lovers consider it the most powerful rock song ever recorded.

On the surface, “Like a Rolling Stone” is an acerbic put-down, delivered (with the classic Dylan sneer) to a high society hipster ex-girlfriend, an unsympathetic rock critic, and/or the legions of embittered folk fans who booed when Dylan “went electric.” However, on a deeper level, the song addresses a central theme drawn from Jewish tradition: the wilderness experience.

During these summer months, Jews around the world read from the book of Numbers, which is known in Hebrew as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” The text recounts how, for forty years, we wandered, without a map, cut off from our Egyptian past, yearning for the distant and elusive Promised Land. That journey—physical and spiritual—shaped us as a people and, in significant ways, still defines us today. And no one captures its emotional resonance better than Bob Dylan, when he asks: “How does it feel. . . to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?”

Talmud asks: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and then answers, with a psychological and spiritual lesson, gleaned from the wilderness experience: Those who wish to learn Torah should emulate the terrain where it was given, by making themselves open and ownerless. To which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner adds: “In the wilderness, your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chasten, and exalts. You see the world as if for the first time.” Perhaps this kind of openness is the prerequisite for all real learning and personal growth. If we wish to move forward, it is important to break free of our hardened assumptions and let the world act upon us in new ways.

In the Hasidic tradition, this path of wilderness as a way of life is called bittul yesh—the dissolution of the ego. The premise is simple: in order to experience the sacred, we must get our selves, our egos, out of the way so that there can be room for God. As Dov Baer of Mezrich said: “The work of the pious is greater than the creation of the heavens and the earth. For while the creation of the heavens and the earth was making something from Nothing, the pious transform something back into Nothing.”

In other words, we experience the Holy One by stripping away ourselves.

Or, as Reb Dylan taught in his own inimitable fashion: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

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