It is still too early, far too early, to distill the lyrical worldview of Tom Petty into a single statement. The shock of Petty’s untimely passing last week at the age of sixty-six has sent ripples of sorrow through all those raised on his music in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s; all the more so products of Southern California like myself, who are capable of locating themselves geographically and spiritually “gliding down over Mulholland” or “moving west down Ventura Boulevard.” Petty’s forty-year career with the Heartbreakers was productive throughout: at least ten albums released between 1976 and 1999; playing sold-out arenas right up until days before his death; a musical influence on Sam Smith, Norah Jones, John Mayer, and an ever-growing number of other artists. Different from the blue-collar anthems of Springsteen or the socially conscious hymns of U2, Petty’s songs are remarkable not so much because they reflect any particular class, context, or cause. For the most part they are not situated in any one framework. The resonance of Petty’s songs is that they speak to a courageous and ongoing struggle against adversity, the repeated attempts of the protagonists of Petty’s lyrics to pick themselves up after having fallen down. From his newly relevant 1970s call not “to live like a refugee” to his 1980s cri de coeur, “I Won’t Back Down,” written in response to an arsonist, to his inspired 1990s reflection that despite having no wings, he was nevertheless “learning to fly,” the connective thread is there for all to hear. A sustained effort, through both his lyrics and guitar, giving voice to an individual’s efforts – sometimes successful and sometimes not – to transcend the adverse circumstances thrust upon him. As the wonders of Spotify have enabled me to re-engage with Petty’s music this past week, and as I have read about his embattled life story, from an abusive childhood to lifelong struggles with substance abuse, I understand why Petty’s music kept returning to a gritty resilience, stating for decades that “in a world that keeps on pushin’ me around,” not only must one stand one’s ground, not only must one not back down, but one must be ever capable of beginning again, stronger than before.
If I had to situate Petty’s courageous plea for resilience beyond the canon of rock ‘n’ roll and locate it in the canon of Hebrew prayer, it would be with the three words that we just sang as we returned the Torah to the ark, hadesh yameinu k’kedem. While I have long been familiar with this phrase, it took on a new and amplified meaning through an inspired insight of a colleague, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Rabbi Scheinberg notes that the choice to recite this passage, the final verse of the book of Lamentations, is significant because it asks God to renew our days “as kedem.” It would have been far more sensible, Scheinberg suggests, to ask God to renew our days not “as kedem,” but “as Eden.” Hadesh yameinu k’eden, renew our days as at the very beginning, the primordial Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden where all was perfect. In fact, when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, they were sent to kedem l’gan eden, translated by Steinbeck and others as “East of Eden.” So why, Rabbi Scheinberg asks, would we ask God to return us to kedem, the place where Adam and Eve were sent after their sin, and not to that more pristine, pre-fruit eating place, Eden? Wouldn’t we all choose to return to Eden if we could? Thankfully, Rabbi Scheinberg answers his question as follows: As Jews, it is not a perfect Edenic condition to which we aspire; perfection is not ours to have. Our hope rather, is to return to that far more accessible and far more inspiring place where Adam and Eve were called on not to begin, but having been caught, castigated, and cast out, to begin again. It is that new beginning, that place of resilience and renewal following a setback, to which we turn for inspiration and ask to be returned.
Rabbi Scheinberg’s insight confirms that as Jews, unlike other faith traditions, our focus is not so much on any sin Adam and Eve committed in the garden, but rather on their ability to reconstitute their lives following their brief stay there. Our attention is directed to the story of how the first couple, having grown distant from God, learn to grow close to each other. A story of how two people, made painfully aware of the limitations of their own mortality, learn to extend the reach of their existence by bringing children into this world. A story of how the human heart, now capable of differentiating between good and evil and thus feeling shame and guilt, nevertheless learns to navigate this world seeking to choose good. Adam and Eve may indeed have been created in the Garden, but for Jews the real story begins once they have left, when they demonstrated the Tom Petty-like resilience and courage to begin life anew. As Elie Wiesel famously wrote: “According to Jewish tradition, creation did not end with man, it began with him. When He created man, God gave him a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.” (Messengers of God, p. 32)
To begin again. It is, if you allow it to be, a powerful way to reframe not just the first few chapters of creation, but the entire book of Genesis, if not the biblical tradition as a whole. Our stories, the stories that animate and inspire our people, are upon closer examination not so much stories about beginnings, but new beginnings, stories about how individuals, families, and sometimes an entire nation prove able to carve a path forward following a loss or setback. Consider Noah, who next week will plant a vineyard following the devastating destruction of the flood. Abraham and Sarah, whose journey to Canaan is preceded by the death of Abraham’s father Terah and a lifelong battle with infertility. Isaac, whose singular task in life was to make sense of his world after having been nearly sacrificed upon the altar. Jacob, who after fleeing his brother Esau and his household of origin, sought to rebuild his life on his own terms in a new land. Joseph, who having been thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, eventually rises up to save himself and his adopted homeland of Egypt, not to mention the very brothers who threw him in the pit. Our heroes are heroes not because they were chosen by God or were happenstance inheritors of a birthright. The lives of Cain and King Saul, among others, were tragic because when faced with adversity, they did not prove resilient enough to begin anew. Our heroes are those people, who – like Miriam with her timbrel as she crossed the sea into freedom – chose not to languish in the hurts of the past, but found the strength to transcend their suffering and to seek a brighter and better future.
The question of today is not how to begin, but how to begin again. The rabbis teach that it is not just humanity, but even God, Godself, who had to learn to regroup and begin anew following failure. The Midrash explains that God created and destroyed not one, not two, but a thousand worlds before settling on the one in which we presently live, and even this world, as we are well aware, has no shortage of flaws. And if it is incumbent upon God to cultivate such resilience, how much more so must we all learn to rebound from life’s challenges. From our biblical forbears, to the prophet Jeremiah’s command to rebuild following exile, to the establishment of rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Temple, to the founding of the State of Israel in the wake of the Shoah – this is the fundamental DNA of our people. Not an answer to why pain occurs – that is a question whose answer will ever elude us. Rather the knowledge that in the face of pain we must answer with a commitment to life. It is a quality that the author Nassim Taleb calls “antifragility,” loosely defined as the ability to thrive and grow when exposed to stress and uncertainty. It is the counterintuitive thought that the challenges of life can, if we so choose, result in post-traumatic growth. Not because we believe there is a silver lining to every setback. Given the choice between experiencing suffering and gaining the wisdom that comes with it, or no suffering and thus no wisdom, most of us, I imagine, would choose the latter over the former any day. Rather, it is a matter of asking ourselves whether, given the inevitability of setbacks and pain, we will have the wherewithal to draw on the resilience that has characterized our people from our earliest beginnings.
Every Shabbat and every parashah is, in my mind, special, but there is something about today – Shabbat B’reishit – that is extra elevated. It is, after all, the first Shabbat of the year. The holidays have just concluded, our new year’s resolutions are hopefully still intact, and the script for the year to come has yet to be written. Here in our community we are even dedicating a new building tomorrow. But here is the thing. I know, as do all of you even without me saying it, that there will setbacks, missteps, loss, and perhaps even suffering this year. Some will be inflicted on us without cause or explanation, and some will be wrought by our own hand. We will fall short of others, of God, and of ourselves. No matter how clean our slates may be right now, rest assured they will not stay that way throughout the year to come. So today let us be prepared for the inevitable. When we slip, when we fall, and yes, even when we suffer, let us not seek to return to Eden; none of us can turn back the clock. Rather may we return to that place just a bit east of Eden, kedem l’gan eden, where Adam and Eve once stood seeking to make sense of their world, and let us endeavor as they did, to dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up, a bit wiser, a bit stronger, journeying forward, one step after the other into the great wide open.