In 1966, just a month after the release of his iconic double-album Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan, the great Jewish American bard, crashed his motorcycle. In the wake of the accident, Dylan largely withdrew from public life — he took a lengthy hiatus from the road, settled down with his family in Woodstock and wholeheartedly embraced his new role as a father.
It was during those years that Dylan wrote the poignant hymn, “Forever Young,” for his oldest son, Jesse. The song takes the form of a father offering words of blessing to his child. In an overt homage to his Jewish roots, Dylan opened “Forever Young” with a line he borrowed from the biblical Priestly Benediction. As we read in Numbers 6:23-27:
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you
May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace
And “Forever Young” opens with the words:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others and let others do for you.
The words of the Priestly Benediction can be found on the oldest piece of Biblical text ever discovered, the “silver scrolls” of Ketef Hinnom. As a rabbi, I recite these words to each and every bar and bat mitzvah that I have the privilege of blessing from the bimah. And as a parent, I offer these words every Friday night, as I place my hands on my daughter’s head and bless her at the onset of Shabbat.
With “Forever Young,” Dylan brought the most ancient and enduring words of Jewish blessing to the masses. “Forever Young” was prominently featured in Martin Scorsese’s legendary concert film, The Last Waltz. The lyrics were recited by Howard Cosell on national television just moments after Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight crown for the third time. And of course, it became the theme song of the long running hit TV series Parenthood.
Through “Forever Young,” Bob Dylan became much more than the poet-laureate of the American spirit; he became the great transmitter of the oldest words of the Jewish tradition. The line “May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true” is Dylan’s midrashic reframing of the Sabbath eve blessing “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe. May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And I have always felt that “May you always do for others and let others do for you” flows directly from V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Not only do Dylan’s lyrics penetrate our American hearts, but they also speak directly to our Jewish souls.
Today, Bob Dylan turns 80. In a simple twist of fate, this past Shabbat, Jews in synagogues around the world read Parshat Naso, the Torah portion which contains the words of the Priestly Benediction. I’m sure that more than a few synagogue attendees heard echoes of Dylan’s voice as those verses were chanted. On this milestone birthday, we offer Bob his own words of blessing: “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung. And may you stay forever young.”