God Will Gather Me In

Rosh Hashanah 5768 (Day 2)
Shmuel Herzfeld


I happened to notice a sign on the street advertising that Bob Dylan will be performing in concert in DC in two weeks.

Of course, I sent him an invitation to join us for a meal in our Sukkah.  I am still awaiting a response.

Bob Dylan was born as Robert Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from Minnesota. He led the life of a Rock Star.  He was a hit musician, brilliant poet, and inspiration to many people.  He was an activist and a symbol.  He also had a life of ups and downs.  He went through multiple relationships and periods of depression and despair.  He suffered one period where he broke his neck falling off a motorcycle and had to fight his way back to life.

Spiritually, he also wandered from his roots.  For a while he embraced all religions.  Then, in the late 1970s, he became a born-again Christian and produced albums celebrating his faith in Christianity.

But can anyone ever really leave their roots?  In the late ‘80’s Dylan seemed to reconnect to his yiddeshkeit.  And he seems to have remained with it ever since.  As late as 2005 there was an article noticing that he attended services at an Orthodox synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.  Who knows?  He might even show up today.

In the meantime, here is my favorite Bob Dylan story.  On February 20, 1991, Bob Dylan was given a Grammy award for lifetime achievement:

Dylan took his trophy from a beaming Jack Nicholson; he squinted, as if looking for his mother, who was in the audience.

“Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said” – there was a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd – “you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.”
Dylan’s remarks were almost a verbatim account of the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch: “Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” (Taken from Ronnie Shcrieber’s website.)
Rav Hirsch was a brilliant rabbi in Germany in the 19th century.  His comments (which inspired Dylan) were written for the words of psalm 27 which we recite every day in the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, “ki avi ve-imi yaazavuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni, for though my father and mother forsake me, God will gather me in.”

This psalm is a psalm of King David who wrote it to express his loneliness.  King David was the most powerful man of his generation.  He was a great warrior.  He ruled all of Israel and conquered Jerusalem.  No one had been able to do that before.  He had six wives and many children.

And yet, David was a profoundly lonely man.  He was racked with the guilt of the sins he had committed and with despair from the losses he had suffered.  His first son from Bathsheva died as an infant.  Then, one of his sons, Amnon assaulted his own sister, Tamar.  David’s other son, Avshalom then killed Amnon and led a rebellion against David.  David felt betrayed by everyone around him.  He was all alone in the world.

David dies virtually alone—betrayed by everyone.  He cries out in pain, “Avshalom, Avshalom, my son.”

David put this feeling of loneliness to paper and he wrote a beautiful psalm which is the center of our liturgy.  In the psalm he expresses both his loneliness and his reliance upon God.  He cries, “ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”  No matter what he has done, he feels that God will still embrace him and draw him in closer.  Even if his own parents give up on him, God still makes room for him.

Today we read the story of another spiritual giant who might have also felt David’s sense of loneliness and betrayal.

This morning’s Torah reading tells the story of the Akedah.  Abraham leads Isaac up Mount Moriah and binds him with his hands tied behind his head and his legs down to the ground.

When we analyze this story we often ask ourselves: “How could Abraham have done this?  How could he have had the strength to tie his own son up with the intention of slaughtering him?

But for just this morning why not think about it from Isaac’s perspective as well?  Imagine how Isaac must have felt as his own father—his only father, the one whom he loved—bound him and stood above him with a knife and drew close in an effort to slaughter him.

Even scarier than the knife which stopped just inches from his throat must have been the sense of abandonment.  Can you imagine?  Your own father abandoning you!

But, of course we all can imagine.  We have all been abandoned at one point in our lives.  And we will all be abandoned.  Our loved ones have died and will die; our friends have forgotten us and will forget us; our bosses or customers don’t appreciate us.  We can get very lonely.

At that moment Isaac might have thought: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

We too cry out: “Ki avi ve-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem ya-asfeni.”

Even though everyone around us will abandon us, God will still draw us in.  We can return to God for a relationship.

Loneliness is something that is all around us.  Whenever I visit someone who is all alone in this world, I think of one of my favorite poems, Eleanor Rigby, by the Beatles.  “Ah, look at all the lonely people….”

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that as long as we are with Hashem we are never alone.  Hashem will be there to comfort us and be our friend.  No matter how dark, Hashem is by our side.

Isn’t this what the sound of the shofar is really all about?

We often forget to focus on the original meaning of the shofar blast.  The Torah tells us (Numbers 10:7): “U-vehakhil et ha-am titkeu, when you GATHER THE PEOPLE you should blast the shofar.”

The basic—perhaps the primary–purpose of the shofar is to gather us in.  At its core, the shofar is a cry from Hashem calling us to Him; He calls to us and tells us to come home to His embrace.

In that same verse in the Torah, a secondary meaning of the shofar also appears.  The Torah continues, “utekatem teruah ve-nasau, you must blast the shofar and then you will travel.”

After the shofar was used to gather the people, it was then used to signal the start of the travels of the Israelites in the desert.

On a symbolic level we can understand this to mean that if we allow Hashem to gather us in we can then travel with Him.  We can journey with God, holding His hand, and ascend to higher places.

Once we allow Hashem to gather us in then we can travel with Hashem.
Perhaps my favorite verse from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf is when we say the words of Jeremiah, zakharti lakh chesed neurayikh, “I remember the kindness of your youth…how you followed Me through the desert….” (Jeremiah  2:2).
Jeremiah is telling us that God remembers us how we once were—pure and innocent and like a child, he gathers us up and believes in us when no one else does.

God is like a parent always believing in us.  Parents always believe in their children.
Let us remember that on Rosh Hashanah we remind ourselves that God is King of the Universe.  Since God is King, then who are we?  We are of course princes, nobles with an awesome opportunity.  As Jews we believe that Hashem requires us to carry a unique message to the world—the message of Torah.  Since we have such an important message, we MUST carry ourselves with confidence on our path to serve Hashem.

If God believes in us and God knows what he’s talking about, shouldn’t we also believe in ourselves?  Shouldn’t we avoid the trap of loneliness and low self-esteem?  Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be drawn in by the sound of the shofar?

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