The Babylonian Talmud teaches that all human beings contain a world, whole and complete, and that the loss of a single life is akin to an entire world vanishing away (Sanhedrin 37a). We all contain multitudes, says the Talmud, and Bob Dylan agrees.
“I contain multitudes,” Dylan sings on his album for our age, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). This is his riff on Walt Whitman’s decree that he contains multitudes in the lighthouse poem “Song of Myself” first published in 1855. To quote Dylan and Whitman’s creative peer John Lennon, “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together.” There is no “I” when it comes to ultimate truths and the mysteries of creation. We all contain multitudes.
This is a sentiment of crystalline truth and challenge for a period of fracturing and fear, fires and floods, disease and political mayhem, people fleeing, bleeding, seeking, and beseeching without really even really knowing where to run and to whom to turn.
“Tell me, what’s next? What shall we do?,” Dylan asks in the song “I Contain Multitudes.” Indeed Bob Dylan has asked scores of haunting questions over a sixty year career in which he has served as an artist of such far reaching spiritual influence that it betrays any category. (You are invited to enjoy my book and podcast to discover more about the spiritual revolution Dylan catalyzed for popular culture as whole.)
As a very young man he asked us what was blowing in the wind. Then in “Like a Rolling Stone” a few years later, he wondered aloud what everyone was thinking: “How does it feel to be on your own?” Bob Dylan has always insisted that popular music, maybe even popular culture as a whole, find its voice by asking us the essential questions we all want to know, but can’t: When will I be loved? What’s do funny about peace, love, and understanding? How long must we sing this song?
These are today’s voices wrestling with vexing questions swirling within ancient wisdom across cultures and time. With his musical and poetic co-travelers, Dylan opened the gates of entertainment to dilemmas that had troubled sages, saints, prophets, and shamans for millennia.
In our time of disruption of seemingly every pathway and destination, is there a way to put Dylan’s conception of all human beings serving as vessels of multitudes to work for a better world? The answer is yes. When we affirm that all people contain multitudes, look at what melts away: Hatred based upon the color of someone’s skin. Anxiety and anger begotten by difference. Servitude rooted in violence. Refusing to put on a mask to save someone else’s world.
If I am a world and you are world, if each of us is a multitude, why can’t we believe with Lennon’s “I am the Walrus” that “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together?” For our neighbors and enemies, for nature engorged and on fire, and for both the living and the dead, we are all creations expressing the same infinite multitude. Merely asking another person “How does it feel?” translates into recognizing an innate sense of one’s own survival in the thriving of another.
The Jewish High Holidays are upon us, a time of reflection and renewal, for choosing empathy in starting the cycle of life once again. “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,” Dylan’s middle-age classic from 1997, has much in common with the ancient Jewish rite of Neila asking for the Holy One to hold open the gates of mercy long enough for our pleas of forgiveness to be received at the closing hour of the season of mercy.
We have all wronged and been wronged this year. It’s been a horrible twelve months, and sometimes it seems to be getting worse. But what would happen, mask to mask and hand in hand, if we truly asked our fellow human beings “How does it feel?” What would happen if we saw a world of multitudes in everyone?
The answer is not blowing in the wind, but is embedded in all great music and in every prayer worth chanting: the gates of mercy would open immediately to all of our worlds inside and out, setting us in the right direction. And there would be enough room for all of our multitudes to walk through those gates of mercy together.