By Rabbi Philip Graubart
In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was one set of sacred texts that preoccupied most of my male friends. The author of these writings was the holy rebbe Bruce Springsteen. But I didn’t get it. I pretended to, but, really, all the sad, rocking hymns to working men, cars and the highway left me cold — probably because the young Springsteen’s great theme was escape, and I wasn’t so eager to leave Cleveland, not as eager as my friends (not that I would live there now).
But I recently re-listened to a later Springsteen song that left me tearful and gasping for breath. The song, from the album “Lucy Town,” is “If I Should Fall Behind.” According to Wikipedia, he wrote it as a wedding song for his second wife Patti Scialfa. But it also came at a distinct, confused moment in Springsteen’s career, when he experimented with making music apart from his life-long comrades in the E Street Band. The song perfectly captures the more mature Springsteen’s most powerful theme: living with disillusionment — yearning for eternity, even while understanding that nothing lasts forever.
At first listen, it sounds like a standard love song. “I’ll wait for you,” Springsteen sings, “come what may.” The lovers walk side by side to the great Oak Tree, underneath which they “will be wed.” But listen closely and you realize the singer not only fears that he’ll lose his true love, he expects it. “Everyone dreams of a love lasting and true.” That’s exactly the point: it’s a dream, it’s not reality. “But both of us know what this world can do.” It can destroy a lasting love, which means that the love doesn’t last. The lovers in the song try to walk together, but “each lover’s step falls so differently.” Springsteen even imagines that somehow this eternal love will disappear during the wedding procession, on the way to the oak tree. “Should we lose each other,” he sings, “in the shadow of the evening trees, I’ll wait for you.” And hope she’ll wait for him. The love Springsteen describes here is fraught with the potential for disappointment. But his bold, haunting response — I would say his revelation — is that we reach for this eternal, true love anyway, even though we know it’s an illusion, that nothing lasts forever.
For me, this revelation, this inevitable disillusionment, is the very basis of my faith in God. The late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of the great rabbis of the 20th century, once shared with me a cruel game he played with teenagers at Camp Ramah. He would ask them to list the five most important things in their lives. And then he would terrify them, or break their hearts, by pointing out that each item on the list would one day disappear. “Your health,” he would scoff. “One day you’ll lose your health” (he was a great rabbi, but working with teens was not his strong suit). “Your dog? Your dog will get hit by a car!” “Your parents? They’ll die a long time before you!” His point was to teach them about God. God is the thing that lasts forever, so you’d better put God on your list. In fact, if you want to survive all the disappointment, all the disillusionment the world throws at you, God had better be number one. That way, you’ll always have something.
The point of Jewish ritual is to connect us to something eternal, even as we understand our own mortality. Our Shabbat candles last a few hours at most, but as we light them we transport ourselves to a timeless realm, where Jews have always and will always be lighting similar candles while reciting the same blessings. The mikvah is probably our greatest response to mortality — our best way to reach for transcendence even as we accept our inevitable frailty. In traditional Judaism, women visit the mikvah after menstruation, a time of bleeding and loss. Men use it after illnesses, or seminal emissions, which, for ancient people, symbolized the loss of potential life. In all cases, the living waters provide moments of eternity — enough to send us on our way.
But back to Springsteen. He composed this masterpiece while contemplating a new romance, but also in the aftermath of losing his best friends, the guys he’d played with since he’d been a teenager in Jersey (the most moving version of the song is when, during a reunion tour, each member of the E Street band takes a verse. Google it!) As I listened last week, I thought of all the friends I’ve lost touch with over the years, all the couples I’ve known who have broken up. I wept for these losses, mine and theirs, even as I thanked God for God’s great enduring power.