Friday, September 14, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and Rosh HaShanah

Last week, I attended a religious experience:   I went to my first rock concert.  Not just any rock and roll concert, mind you, but THE rock concert: I saw Bruce Springsteen play Wrigley Field.  It was like going to selichot with 60,000 people at The Temple of Baseball.  The Boss and the E Street Band played 38 songs in about three-and-a-half hours with no break and, watching from the first base line, a few things were apparent to me.  The obvious first, Bruce Springsteen is an exceptional musician.  He is charismatic and magnetic.  He is also a preacher, focusing on the American and human condition.

I was amazed by how many people knew the words to every song. They sang along, danced themselves into trances, and, when Bruce held out the microphone to the crowd, 55,000 people all shouted in unison.  And then it occurred to me: I wasn't just watching a concert; rather, I was witnessing a religious moment for passionate believers in the performer and in the meaning of the lyrics.  Their dancing and singing took on an intentional, religious fervor.  They knew the words, they knew the drum beats so well they were jamming their hands in concert with the drummer, crashing imaginary cymbals on cue.  I, on the other hand, was a mere spectator.  Never a big rock and roll fan, I never paid much attention to Bruce.  I didn't know the words to every song.  I don't have ten of his albums on iTunes.  In fact, I was probably the only person at the concert who could only name two songs by Springsteen.

Please understand:  I enjoyed the experience.  After all, who doesn't like to see a winner at Wrigley Field?  For me, however, this was not a personal awakening of the soul; rather, it was more like an anthropology field trip observing Springsteen fans in their natural environment, noticing their rituals and fervor.  I knew enough of the "language" to clap my hands to the beat every once in a while but I was not going to be deeply moved or changed or transformed.  For that to happen, I needed to  study up on The Boss, to listen to his music for a few weeks, to study the lyrics.  To be deeply moved, I needed to be prepared, to open my soul, to commit to transforming myself into a real Springsteen fan and that was not going to happen.  So, I went, I enjoyed and I left.

Walking home in the rain with Becca, I realized that my Springsteen concert experience shared many similarities with those people who only attend synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  People come for connection, are in shul for hours, listening to prayers in a language they don't know or understand, listen to a preacher and then leave.  We hope that the soulful significance of High Holiday services and a Bruce Springsteen Concert would be profoundly different.  Sadly, however, I see just how similar they are.  As I wrote above, having a powerful spiritual experience requires preparation: reading, thinking, reflecting, absorbing and emulating.  To truly experience a transformation, you have to open your soul and be fully present.  You need to know the words, to be able to sing along, to participate in the choreography.  Otherwise, you are left as a spectator.  How different would my Springsteen concert experience have been had I invested the preparation time?

I wish I knew how to get more people to invest in the preparation required to make High Holiday services a more meaningful, more transformational experience.  Imagine what it would be like if more people would invest the same kind of time in learning the "lyrics" or piyyut of the Yamim Noraim and the tunes to those lyrics as they do memorizing the lyrics to Glory Days?  What does it take to get people to want to invest that kind of time?  To value their soul and their heritage enough to be fully equipped to participate?  Like I said, I wish I had the answers but I don't.

There is a hint to an answer in the opening words of this week's parashah:

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

You, all of you, are standing this day before The Lord Your God...

Before focusing on the words of the High Holiday services, learning them, absorbing the tunes and the choreography, maybe everyone just needs to start with standing, being fully present.  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur give us, at minimum, the opportunity to stand and reflect, to think about ourselves,  to decide how we want to be better, what we want to accomplish, and how we want to change ourselves and the world.  The gift of time is precious and the opportunity to stand before God is timeless.

On the precipice of the start of the New Year, I will be standing, reflecting and thinking forward.  The words of the High Holiday liturgy are familiar to me as are the tunes and they will enhance my experience.  They will provide a framework for thinking about the exciting year about to begin, a year of new work, of new family stages, and, in August, of a new home in The State of Israel.  What will this new year bring for you?  What will you stand and think about?  How will you be present?

Becca, Elan, Mira, Amalya and I join in wishing you all a Shanah Tova U'Metukah.  May this be a year of blessing and joy, happiness, success and growth.  And, if by some chance he decides to play a concert at The Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem after August but before next Rosh HaShanah, we hope you will come and join us for my second Bruce Springsteen Concert of the year!

Shabbat Shalom.


Elisson said...

Having seen Bruce Springsteen perform - OK, it was 37 years ago, but still - and being familiar with Rosh Hashanah, I can only say that your post has managed to juxtapose two elements that I never would have thought could work so well together. Thank you for a most insightful piece!

Mel Scult said...

I met you in Jerusalem this shabbat [shabbat noah] at Moreshet Yisrael. We talked briefly about MMKaplan whom I admire and write about.

I dont know whether Kaplan ever attended a Springsteen concert [ or perhaps even the Beatles] but i would like to think he would appreciate it. Kaplan liked to summer at the Jersey shore. Isnt Springsteen from New Jersey????

The emotional involvement, the excitement at the concert amounts to a spiritual experience as you yourself indicate. I have never been to a rock concert of any kind but I think I would do this in celebration of my 80th birthday which is not far away.

The emotional high is something we stive for, though in a different context and with somewhat different content. But the divine has many names and appears in many forms. This too is a form of transcendence.

I look forward to meeting you again.

Mel Scult