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’…