I Don't Like Bob Dylan
but maybe I will??
In the spirit of the recently passed Yom Kippur’s different types of confessions, I want to come clean. I feel a bit nervous, but bare my soul I must. I don’t really like Bob Dylan. I could not name for you more than a handful of his songs and every time I have tried to listen to him, I find myself ready to swipe or turn the dial to the next song. I thank you in advance for not shunning me!
A few years back, when Dylan won the Nobel Prize, I was struck by the heft of his impact on society. I was especially drawn in by the op-ed written in the New York Times by Greil Marcus. In it, he described what made Dylan so special:
Mr. Dylan has put his words out into the world in vessels with too many dimensions to be broken down into elements: as songs. Think of a song as thrillingly alive with the furies of creation. Songs move through time, seeking their final form. What happens on that path is only partly up to the writer, the singer, the musicians... His songs burst at the seams waiting to explode into the world. They are timeless in the way they shape and shift not solely based on the artist himself but also based on the changing setting of the listener. The song remains the same and is constantly reshaped. (Greil Marcus, Master of Change, NY Times, 10/3/2016)
Even as a non-fan, I was taken aback by this piece, not only for the way in which it captured Dylan but also for how eerily similar one could write the same thing about the Torah, especially in the way it compares the relationship between listener and learner to Torah itself. The immediate connection is to this week’s portion, Ha’azinu, which is alluded to by last week’s parshah as a song or poem. The Talmud though expands and actually takes that reference to mean that the WHOLE TORAH is a song. If that’s the case, then Marcus’ words about Dylan are even more apt to think about as a framework for Torah.
Yet, describing the whole Torah as a poem is quite a claim so we turn to one of our sages to help clarify how this could possibly be. The Netziv, a great 19th century sage, breaks down the Torah into two categories that share the same traits with a poem: its nature as a fragmented document and its richness that contains many hints and allusions.
In the former, because of its laconic nature, the listener has to make notes on the margins, as it were. We are the interpreters filling in the gaps. In the latter, like a poem, the Torah makes language malleable, reworking and concealing deep mysteries behind the surface level letters. Both of those aspects make it incumbent upon the reader and listener to constantly be in relationship with it, sifting through it, trying to draw meaning out of it.
As we prepare to finish and restart the Torah once more, I find this rationale compelling and alluring. We are always different and the Torah always has more to offer us. May this year be one in which we can draw new meanings out of the hidden notes of the Torah. Maybe, also, this is the year where I will finally become a Dylan fan!