Tag Archives: dreams

Running Down A Dream

You might recognize the phrase as the title of a track from Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever.  The rock and roll world lost one of its greats when Petty died at the (relatively) young age of 66 just a couple of weeks ago.  I was never a huge Petty fan, never even bought one of his records, and saw him live only once, on July 4th 1986.  But his music was always around, ubiquitous, part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, his songs constantly on the radio, so many hits, so many catchy licks, so much good music for so long.  Like all great song writers Petty loved a turn of phrase, and ‘running down a dream’ is a wonderful example.  Although the lyrics of the song are mostly bright and cheery, the title evokes the edginess of dreams, and perhaps also the difficulty of attaining them.  You have to chase after a dream, work for it, hunt it down.  Only then, over time, might it become reality.  And the chorus of the song reminds us that often, ultimately, dreams are out of our reach:  “running down a dream, that would never come to me..”

It reminds me a bit of navigating the fall holiday cycle in the Jewish calendar.  The introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to lead to the festive joy of Sukkot and the celebratory release of Simhat Torah.  That is the dream, and throughout the holiday season those of us who work in the synagogue world chase that dream with everything we have.  But the truth is it always feels slightly out of reach, ephemeral, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.  To paraphrase another great rock and roller, Bruce Springsteen,  ‘you can look but you cannot touch.’  Part of clergy work is simply the expenditure of personal energy – bringing your spirit to the service, to try in some way to heighten the atmosphere, to make things feel festive, warm, worthwhile.  You are chasing that dream, running it down.  But sometimes in the chase, it runs you down instead.

And the truth is you rarely, if ever, get there.  You know the old joke – the mother wakes up her son on Shabbat morning and says ‘you have to get up, it is time to go to shul!’  The son responds ‘I don’t want to go!  I am tired of shul!  I went yesterday! I am not going!’  ‘But,’ responds the mother, ‘you are the rabbi!’  Most rabbis, if being candid, will tell you they are just as tired of shul at the end of the holiday cycle as their congregants.  That energy gets more and more difficult to muster, the dream of joy and celebration more and more elusive.  The protagonist in Petty’s song never finds his dream.  Here is the last stanza:

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

And there again you see the great song writer at work.  Just a few words, but what it captures!  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  We can’t see the road ahead, but we always believe that something good waits for us there.  We hurry forward, picking up the cards we are dealt, chasing that dream, hoping against hope that at the end of the road we will find joy, maybe even ecstasy.

Of course what Jews learned long ago is that joy is almost always tempered.  When found it comes about through hard work, through effort and energy, often blood, sweat, and tears.  But on the rare occasions when it is found, the difficulty of the journey makes the taste sweeter and the appreciation deeper.  In the meantime we continue down the road under darkening skies.  Just beyond the next mile marker the clouds may part and the sun might shine.  Put the convertible top down!  Here is the first stanza of Running Down A Dream:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’…


Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

One More River to Cross

A dreamscape.  It is nighttime.  A wide expanse of water, and a far distant shore.  We are swimming, and I look back.  Maybe there are a dozen of us?   Maybe fewer?  But people I know, people I love.  Why we are swimming I don’t know or I don’t remember.  As I slowly move forward in the water, looking at the distant lights, I realize we will never make it across.  I turn back again to look at those behind me, and I can see they are tiring.  We have so far to go.

But when I look forward suddenly everything has shifted.  This happens in dreams.  The second floor of a house morphs into the first floor.  A person you are speaking with somehow becomes someone else in the middle of the conversation.  And here, the river that was uncrossable, the opposite bank that seemed inconceivably far away, is suddenly close by.  In the dream the thought flits through my mind – maybe I was looking at it the wrong way, staring in the wrong direction.  If I had just looked to my left earlier I would have realized it isn’t so far after all.  It can’t be more than another 30 or 40 yards.  Oddly, there is an old and dented stop sign at the river’s edge, the exit place where I now know we will climb back on to dry land.

Of course the River is a symbol, a living in dream embodiment of the liminal moment, of transitional space.  Think of the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Or in the Bible, the Israelites must cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.  Jacob wrestles his angel at a river crossing (also at night!).  Moses is taken from the River Nile as a baby.  There is something powerful, something compelling, about the dark water and the deep currents.  The river pulls us along physically, but it can trap our minds as well.

And yet.  To survive the journey, to escape the river, is to emerge whole and renewed.  Possibly cleansed?  Different, with a new understanding, more wisdom, better insight.  The truth is there are many river crossings in the course of life, some more difficult than others, some with deeper and darker water, others not much more than a simple wading across a sandbank.  It is knowing the other shore is there that keeps us going.  Somehow, someway, we sense comfort in that distant dry land.  A place where we’ll be able again to plant our feet and move forward with purpose and direction.

One last thing.  One More River to Cross is the title of a track on Bob Weir’s lovely new solo record, entitled Blue Mountain.  On the album Weir gruffly confronts a variety of topics, his now weathered voice and spare acoustic guitar calling to mind dusty ghost towns, lost loves, and yes, distant shores that we have yet to reach.  Here are the lyrics of the song’s last stanza:

My one true companion is carrying me
One more river to cross
And when I cross over, he’ll go running free
One more river to cross
And I’ll burn a dance, and the horse will run wild
Through endless green meadows, till one day it finds
And then it will cross over back to my side
One more river to cross
A river and crossing it back to my side
One more river to cross
One more river to cross

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, liminal moments, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Uncategorized

The Thread

I’ve seen it a thousand times, over and over and over again. The ark is opened, and the congregation rises reflexively. The Torahs are resting there, dressed in their finery, the elegant cloaks and silver crowns that beautify them and remind us of royalty. Someone reaches into the ark to lift the scroll, placing it carefully in the arms of the hazzan, the leader of prayer. There is a jingling of metal, silver bells ring softly, the breastplate slides slightly as the Torah moves from one person to the next. Everyone watches, eyes alight with – what? History? Tradition? Yes. And perhaps also a sense of connection and continuity, of momentarily touching something that is eternal, that was, is, and will be. A ritual enacted, the same each time with subtle variations. Same as it ever was.

But this time, for some reason I will never know, my breath caught in my throat. I was moved, struck in some new way by the power of that simple moment. Maybe it was the way the young man so reverentially lifted that Torah, with grace and almost awe reaching forward to grasp it, carefully and gently placing it into the Hazzan’s embrace. Maybe it was how I know the men, the respect I have for them, the love I know they have in their hearts for our tradition. I suspect the way that shadows cast from some tree’s leaves danced on the wall had something to do with it, and also the soft early morning sunshine slowly rising. And that powerful sense we sometimes have of time’s compression, of the swiftly moving years somehow collapsing, of these particular men with their phylacteries and prayer shawls, enacting this ancient ritual that has been going on uninterrupted, century after century, generation after generation.

There was an imperceptible shift in the air and the moment passed. But as the old scroll was carried through the congregation something sacred hung in the air, just out of site, just there. Remember the great and enigmatic line at the end of King Lear? “Look there! Look there!” Whatever did he see? I looked, and it was gone. But a soft soul-tingling sense lingers on.

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Faerie Tale Pumpkin

That is the actual name of the odd looking pumpkin on the right hand side of this picture. I can see why. It does have the look of a pumpkin that would appear in a Disney film, or as part of the set on the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies. Recognizable, but just oddly enough looking to perhaps – perhaps – be from some other world. A world where dreams come true, where magic happens, where we are all princes and princesses, kings and queens, heroes and heroines. Where evil is evil, good is good, and all is clear. And, of course, where they live happily ever after.

What I like particularly about this photo is the way the faerie tale pumpkin sits side by side with a regular old pumpkin. The standard version. Serviceable. The one we see in every food store and every farmer’s market this time of year. The one we’ve carved faces into, first digging out the innards, up to our elbows in pumpkin slime. The one we’ve dried and baked the seeds of, the one we’ve put on our front steps, lit candle carefully placed inside. The one that quietly, patiently, even eerily watches the neighborhood in the cool darkness of fall under the bright stars.

In a sense, side by side, the pumpkins represent two parts of each of us. The faerie tale and the reality. The person we always hoped to be, wanted to be, but were never quite able to become. The life we always dreamed of having, the life we actually live. What we thought we knew, what we actually learned. The truth is we need both of these parts, both aspects of our sense of who we want to be, who we are, who we hope to become. To be able to dream with our feet on the ground. And to live happily – if not ever after, at least for a time, on this earth, in this life.pumpkins

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons

Tickets and Tefilin

Confusing, yes?  You would expect tallit and tefilin, the natural pair of ritual objects, both beginning with ‘t,’ used in daily davening during morning services.  But it was a dream, and in my dream it was tickets and tefilin.

It was a classic dream, with dream tropes that we are all familiar with.  I was rushing to leave Baltimore so I could get to a concert in New York City.  Everything was taking a few extra minutes, and in the dream that pressing feeling of the clock ticking, of a deadline approaching, was pervasive.  I was going to be staying over night and I had packed a small bag.  I left my home, went to my friend’s, was waiting in his house for him to grab a couple of things.  Then we would be on the road and off to the show!

Suddenly I realized I hadn’t packed my tefilin.  I would need them in the morning and am very rigorous about observing at least this mitzvah.  I told my friend to wait, I would just be a few minutes.  And here is where it gets weird.  For whatever reason, I decided to walk to my house.  Suddenly I wasn’t in Baltimore, but back in my home town Binghamton NY, walking near the soccer field I played on in high school.  The distance was further than I remembered, so I was getting even later.  Somehow I found the tefilin and made my way back to my friend’s.  We got on the road and were New York City bound.

Then I realized I had also forgotten the tickets!  I knew exactly where they were, sitting on top of a book on my bedside table.  To go back to get them would take us an extra half hour, but we had no choice.  Back it was.  We would be late for the show.  That feeling of unavoidable lateness, of not being able to control destiny, fate, traffic, whatever it is, was tangible.  

What was this all about?  What is any dream about?  There are threads – I am going to a show in the next couple of days (Phil Lesh in Central Park), and the tickets are sitting on the book on that bedside table.  But I’ve never forgotten tickets in my life!  (I know, famous last words)  And what is with the tefilin?  Two possibilities come to my mind.  First, the simple truth that music and Judaism have been the two major spiritual influences in my life.  Perhaps more on that in another blog.  But second, the two objects also symbolize an inherent tension.  On the one hand, my personal side (those tickets)!  The ability to leave the office behind, to get out on the road and once again experience the freedom of another time.  On the other, my professional life (the tefilin), with all of its demands, burdens, challenges.  

Now we are getting somewhere.  The tefilin called me first and I had to walk to get them.  Professional life is at the forefront of my mind.  The tickets were almost forgotten entirely, and in this the sense of the professional side consuming the personal.  But those tickets were retrieved in the end, and although the dream ended before the show started, my sense was we were going to get there, late or not.  Of course even when you get away, a little part of that professional side comes along, like it or not.  So the tefilin had to come along for the ride.  But if I remember it right, they were somewhere in the trunk.

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A Holocaust Dream

The haftara reading from this past Shabbat (Parshat Va-y’hi) is one of the most devastating texts in the entire Bible.  It describes the once great King David on his death bed, obsessed with the wrongs that have been inflicted on him during his life.  With his dying breaths he recites a manifesto of revenge to his son Solomon, literally telling him to kill all of the old enemies that plagued David in the course of his life.  What a tragic ending for a great but deeply conflicted hero!  At the end of all things, seeing only the hurts and disappointments, remembering only the enemies, feeling only anger and bitterness, wanting not release, but revenge.

Of course we all know people who live their lives in a similar way.  Not with the same level of anger or desire for revenge, but viewing their years through the lens of a tragic or hurtful experience and focusing on that to the exclusion of all else.  It can be many things – a divorce or a death, a ruptured relationship, an unfulfilled career, a failure in business.  Some people come back to that moment over and over again, reliving it, wrestling with it, reflecting on it.  It becomes the defining moment, the particular narrative that describes their lives, at least in their own eyes.  And in this way a tragedy becomes even more tragic.

Now to the title of this post.  Like many Jews, I have been learning and thinking about the Holocaust since I was a little boy, when I first encountered the subject in Hebrew school.  But last night, for the first time in my life, I dreamed about it.  There was a long, hospital like corridor.  I was walking down it, one person in a long line, being guided towards some distant destination.  In my dream (as can happen in dreams) I knew what this was, I knew that we were being sent to a sorting area, that many of us would be killed immediately, while others would go to a labor camp.  There was an inevitability, no thought to turn and run, to fight or rebel.  Just to walk forward.

I was with family and friends, and we were dressed elegantly.  There was a child I knew up ahead.  He had gone too far in front of his parents and he rounded a corner.  He was gone.  I knew the time was drawing near, and I wanted only one thing – to see the people that I loved one last time.  Just a glimpse.  To see them in this world, in sunlight, with perhaps a gentle smile. 

I woke up and lay still in my bed.  In the quiet of dawn my mind needed to draw itself out of the dream world, to come back to the reality of the present day, my life, this world, the safety of people I care about.  Some hours later now, sitting and typing this post, looking out the window at a beautiful blue sky and a bright morning, I am still haunted.

In a way I suppose we are all haunted by the Holocaust.  Whether we know it or not, feel it or not, it is something that is under our skin and somewhere in our subconscious minds.  I think the challenge that comes hand in hand with that fact is to not let ourselves become David like.  To not define ourselves as individuals, or as a people, by the tragic and unimaginable events that took place in Nazi Germany.  

Time itself may aid us in this task.  There are few left now who experienced the Holocaust first hand.  Within a few short years they will all be gone.  Then the task will fall on us to remember and recall and reflect.  But also to balance the sense of tragedy with other triumphs, both before and after.  Experience gives us many lenses to use to view this world, our lives, our people.  We should not lay aside any of them.  But we also should not use one to the exclusion of all others.

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