Forever Young – Bob Dylan, Jacob, and the Blessings of Vayechi

As a second year student rabbi, I had the privilege of serving my first student pulpit in Mattoon, Illinois. Before my very first Shabbat service, and older gentleman picked me up at my hotel and took me to dinner. Over plates of spaghetti, he shared with me this advice.

“I remember one night, many years ago, I came to Temple, we had nice student rabbi like yourself. He came from Cincinnati, and starts the service. I walk in and what do I hear? It was the music of BOB DYLAN. [The all caps represent the loud way he said the name with hefty disdain.]” There was a dramatic pause.  “Now, you’re the rabbi,” he continued. “You can do anything you want, as long as, in the service, you don’t sing the music of BOB DYLAN.” The words just hung there.

Some time passed, and then I thanked him and assured him I did not play the guitar or the harmonica. I also, being vocally challenged, promised to let someone else handle the music. Fourteen years later, I remember that dinner like it was yesterday, and sometimes I wonder what the song was that offended him so terribly. I doubt it was, “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” not even while studying Leviticus.  I also feel safe ruling out “Mr. Tambourine Man,” though had it only been “Tambourine Woman,” it could have been about Moses’s sister Miriam. Neither would have fit a Friday night service very well, not even for the hippy-est of rabbis in the 60’s. It had to be “Blowin’ In the Wind” or “The Times They Are A-Changing.” I am pretty sure at least one of these appeared in my childhood Temple’s song supplement even into the mid 80’s. Bob Dylan was part of the liturgy of an era, and a certain segment of Judaism elevated the songs to be sacred. While it was never my intent to inject the music of “BOB DYLAN” into the Mattoon sanctuary, looking back, I wish I would have shared with my friend something I have come to believe. When you compare the canon of Torah with the canon of Bob Dylan (né Robert Zimmerman), sometimes, Dylan said it better. You could not always understand it without the album liner notes, but he said it better.

For my money, the song “Forever Young,” expresses the so much better the sentiment we find in this week’s Torah portion, Vay’chi. In this parashah, Jacob, the patriarch offers deathbed blessings to all of his children. For Joseph, he adds a special blessing for his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. In his blessing to them, he declard, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” From these words came the millenia-old Shabbat practice of blessing our sons by with that formula. But it is kind of a headscratcher: Why Ephraim and Manasseh? Tradition tells us because, having grown up in Egypt, Joseph’s sons managed to hold true to the values of their father and their grandfather. They did not cave in to follow the pagan and immoral ways of the Egyptians. They maintained their strength of character against societal pressures and against all odds. The text itself is not entirely clear as to which values Jacob wanted to impress on future generations, but the explanation provides context to help it makes sense.

Sha'ar HaNegev

Still, like I said, Bob Dylan said it better. Just consider the song “Forever Young.” It is a beautiful blessing from parent to child about embodying the best possible traits and maintaining them against all forces that might lead you astray. Let us consider the second verse:

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young.

To a tee, those words describe our understanding of Ephraim and Manasseh. That is the ineloquent wish Jacob made for his descendants— righteousness, truth, faith in the light of others, courage, and the strength to remain upright in the face of all challenges. We may not be able to stay “Forever Young,” but as we continue to embrace these eternal values, the Jewish people rejuvenates itself with these gifts of life, passed from generation to generation.

I would be remiss if I did not address my discomfort with the way we bless the girls in Jewish homes. Tradition says to make them like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, and Leah. I have no problem necessarily with these choices, but stacked up against the moral glorification of Ephraim and Manasseh, the girls get short changed. According to an article from the Jewish Women’s Archive*, the blessing from the matriarchs is based on “their insistence on the continuity of family, which is the basis of the nation, and their demonstration of complete faith in God even in the face of hardship: each woman’s barrenness; natural, human jealousy— Sarah’s of Hagar and Rachel’s and Leah’s of each other; Rebecca’s risk in marrying a stranger and of going to live in the foreign land of Canaan, not her native land—the latter being a risk they all took. Their coping with these painful hardships was considered a deed of hesed (lovingkindness).” I would like to think our daughters could be blessed for reasons above the fortitude to marry and have children. Yes, they met with adversity in all of these endeavors, but in this day, we want for them so much more. Maybe it is Sarah, Rebeka, Rachel, and Leah, for their expression of morals, or for their kindnesses, or for their enduring times of oppression in patriarchal society so that Jewish women today could dream of better lives. Maybe we could bless our daughters by Deborah, a wise and courageous leader of men and women, or of Miriam who risked her own life to shelter a beloved brother, or Judith who defied expectations with wisdom and strength rising to great heights. Or maybe we should not be gender bound in offering blessings to our children. After all, good values are good values, no matter who holds them.

While none of the characters mentioned as blessings, or any biblical characters for that matter, are perfect, the way we bless our children, boys, girls, or any gender, should reflect the best of the values we wish for them to possess. To paraphrase the great Bob Dylan:

May their hands always be busy
May their feet always be swift
May they have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May their hearts always be joyful
And may their song always be sung
And may the people Israel stay forever young.