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Prince went back to Minnesota and spent 1982 touring small college towns, but he did not curl up and go away – far from it. In 1982 he released the double album “1999,” which sold over four million copies propelled by the popularity of its title song and, of course, “Little Red Corvette.” In 1984 Prince released “Purple Rain,” the hit movie and soundtrack album that sold thirteen million copies, spent twenty-four weeks at number one, and achieved the unprecedented distinction of winning the top single, top album, and top movie standing in the country, not to mention the ire of Tipper Gore. To this day, the album is ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the eighth -greatest album of all time. Together with Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, Prince dominated the era. Since he tragically died in 2016, his influence on Rock and Roll stands, I believe, on par with Elvis, the Beatles and Beyoncé. From beer bottle beginnings to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, from spurned prince to acknowledged king, the story of Prince Rogers Nelson is a story of resilience, of perseverance, of seeing past your doubters, believing in yourself, and believing that if you keep putting out a great product, keep perfecting your craft, the world will eventually come around and realize the authenticity of your voice, your art, and most of all, your humanity.
When you open up the book of Genesis, you would not be wrong to read its first chapters as a proclamation of the spectacular and singular nature of humanity. Out of the chaos comes order, one majestic flora-filled day of creation after the next, culminating on the sixth day with the pinnacle of God’s creation: the human being. “Let us make man in our image,” announces the Heavens. “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it.” (1:26–28). Not only is every human being created in God’s image and thus of infinite worth, but the earth itself is given over to humanity to do with as we please. Each one of us is fed with the silver spoon of the divine breath, the opening chapters of Genesis describing the glorious creation of a humanity set on the path to preordained fulfillment.
While such a read is not wrong per se, it is not the only way to read these opening verses; many have, in fact, read the creation story in exactly the opposite fashion. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” is a verse that has puzzled commentators over the ages. Who is this “us”? To whom is God speaking? The rabbis teach that on that sixth day of creation, God took counsel with the celestial retinue of angels, who vehemently objected against the introduction of this new creation – this proposed human being. “Don’t create the human!” the angels protested. There are different versions of the angelic mob scene described in the Midrash. In one, the angel of truth opposes the creation of humanity because humans would be full of lies, the angel of peace objects because we would be warlike, and so on and so forth. Another version has the angels trying to dissuade God by revealing all the future failings of humanity. “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” (Psalms 8:4) “Why, God, put yourself through such tsuris and heartache? It is not too late to change your mind.” One group of angels after another objected, but depending on the version of the story, God either wiped them out or simply created humanity over their objections. It is really a stunning counternarrative to the plain meaning of the creation story – all based, incidentally, on the curious phrasing of “Let us create man.” First, that humanity was created with the backdrop of a beer bottle throwing mob of naysaying angels. Second, that our creation owes itself to God’s faith in us, that despite our inevitable failings and shortcomings we were still deserving of a chance. And third and most importantly, that the unfolding story of humanity is a story not so much about what happens when the red carpet or green garden is rolled out majestically in front of you, but what happens in the face of doubters, and whether one can rise above those voices, proving wrong those who would contend that you should have never taken the stage in the first place.
The question, on this first Shabbat of the year, is not only how you choose to read the first verses of Genesis, but rather how you read the entire book of Genesis if not the Torah and tradition as a whole. I find the rabbinic gloss of the protesting angels, with humanity as the comeback kid, to be more convincing than the plain meaning of the text because it strikes me as more consistent with the unfolding narrative to come. At every turn in the Bible, we encounter the story of a person or people who have been set back on their heels and then find the spiritual wherewithal to dust themselves off, pick themselves off the ground, and lift themselves up to levels higher than they would have otherwise believed themselves capable of reaching.
Let’s start with Adam and Eve. They are in the Garden for but a flash before they stumble. Their story, and by extension, the story of humanity itself, arguably begins only when the two stand East of Eden – tasked with building a family and with rebuilding trust in each other and with God. Noah: Bruised and battered, he exits the ark to become a tiller of the soil; in the face of the Flood’s devastation, he plants a vineyard and plans for the future. The Tower of Babel: A story of hubris yes, but really a story meant to teach how, after the Tower falls, a diverse humanity of differentiated languages finds a way to coexist. What about our Patriarchs and Matriarchs? Abraham leaves his father’s house, puts himself at risk to stand before God and defend Sodom and Gomorrah; he appears willing to sacrifice his son, but nevertheless becomes the exemplar of our faith. Isaac lives his life after being bound on the altar. Jacob builds a family even as he runs from his brother and is cheated by his father-in-law. Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel each contend with the hardships of infertility, marital complexity, and a divine will as capricious as it is hidden. The trials of each protagonist differ, as do their responses – for some words or prayers, for others resilient laughter, and for some heroic deeds – but none of them do nothing. Each one responds. Cain, Lot’s wife, maybe one or two others throw up their hands in despair. They are the exceptions that prove the rule. Our spiritual heroes do not resign themselves to their fate; they do not pack up and stay in Minnesota. What is the story of Joseph, the tale with which Genesis concludes, if not the story of a young man, literally thrown into a pit and left for dead by his brothers, who nevertheless rises up from those depths to reach princely heights?
“Haters,” as another music icon teaches, “gonna hate.” But to stay true to yourself, to persevere no matter the doubt of others or the self-doubt from within – that is the thread that begins in the first chapter of Genesis and extends deeply into the narrative to come. It is the strength of will that Moses musters when he stands before the burning bush, before Pharoah, and before his people. It is the fortitude of spirit that Miriam demonstrates when she raises her timbrel to lead the Israelites through the sea. From our biblical forebears 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 – persistence is in the DNA of our people. The insistence on pushing our humanity through in spite of whatever forces that would hold us back. There are no guarantees in this world. Not everyone is assured a place in the Promised Land, and you can’t always get what you want. But no different than God had faith in us over the objections of the angels, we must have faith in ourselves over the objections of those who think we should pack it in and call it a day.
This message finds ready application to all of us today. With today’s Torah reading we begin again, turning the page, literarily and literally, and on a new year. But we know that today’s beginning is neither new, nor easy. The change of date or season or Torah reading cycle unto itself cannot promise renewal or redemption. The challenges we face are formidable and they come from all directions – political, social, economic, environmental, and spiritual. Who could fault us were we to run backstage and curl up? I remember a mentor of mine explaining to me that sometimes the enormity of the mountain before us can seem so insurmountable, so anxiety producing, that its very presence immobilizes us. It is how many people feel at this moment; it is how I sometimes feel. And whenever I do, I remind myself that it is not the first time I have felt this way. I remember the person who said we would never build our building. I remember the person who said I would never become a rabbi. I remember the person who said that I would never get a PhD. I even remember the person who said I would never marry my wife. I remember all those naysayers, and then I put one step forward, and then the next, and then the one after that, just as I did before, just as Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, and Moses and Miriam all did before me.
This world offers no guarantees, but the credit, to paraphrase Roosevelt, goes only to the one who takes that first step, who actually enters the arena, and ours is a moment and a world in need of as many people of good will to enter the arena as possible. It is a message for adults to know, and it is a message critical for our children to hear. Our time is a hard one, and whatever anxieties we feel, our children feel them ten times over and they don’t have the tools or the vocabulary to make sense of this reality. Parents and teachers and everyone, no different than God had faith in us, we need to build up the faith of our children. They need to know, in the face of a world that seems insurmountable, that we believe in them, that they have the goods, and that if they stick with it and we all work together, we will arrive at a new day.
It is not, after all, just the concert I attended with my father that I remember, but the night some thirty-five years later when I entered another arena, the Barclays Arena, with my daughter. This time it was not to hear the Stones, but Springsteen. It was two days after Prince had died – the 2016 River tour, to be precise. I remember the exact moment: The River album had just been played when the lights turned purple, and I squeezed my daughter’s hand remembering my father holding mine. And then, in tribute to the man with whom he dueled for the number one spot throughout the 80s, Bruce strummed the first chord and sang the first verse of “Purple Rain.” And we all sang with him.
In every generation there will be naysayers – the loudest voices often from within. So, on this Shabbat of new beginnings, let’s remember that no beginnings are really new and that some Princes do grow up to be kings and some kings one day are paid tribute by the Boss. Maybe, just maybe, if we have as much faith in ourselves and in our children as the King of Kings had in all of us way back when, then together we might just all make it to the Promised Land.