David Kalb
Rabbi Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center

Bruce Springsteen, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, Grace and Yom Kippur


This article is based on a talk I gave at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, on Thursday, September 7, 2023. I would like to extend my gratitude to Rabbi Lucas, Susan Werk, Gayle Wieseneck, Shani Drogin, Ami Talkow, Laura Rubenstein, and everyone in the synagogue.

Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” provides a unique framework for discussing the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is on the album Wrecking Ball, released in 2012 (Bruce’s seventeenth studio album), but it was written between 1998 and early 1999. Bruce first performed it with The E Street Band during their 1999 Reunion tour.

“Land of Hope and Dreams” is based on the 1965 song “People Get Ready,” composed by Curtis Mayfield and recorded by Mayfield’s group, The Impressions. The origins of “Land of Hope and Dreams” goes even furtherback to a traditional folk song that some might consider gospel. This composition is called “This Train” (also known as “This Train Is Bound for Glory”). It was first recorded in 1922, but the actual source of the song is utterly unknown. The song was popular in the 1920s as a gospel song. The guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was associated with it in the 30s. In the 1950s, she recorded a more secular version that featured the electric guitar.

This song is also connected to Woody Guthrie and is the basis for the title of his autobiography, Bound for Glory, written in 1943. Needless to say, Bruce was influenced by Woody Guthrie and read his autobiography. (Woody Guthrie also has many Jewish connections; there will be a future article about this very topic.)

I did not just share this history because I think it is important to learn how the song originated (although I do). There are two other reasons why this needs to be pointed out. First, there is something very Jewish about how Bruce based new songs on old ones. Our Tefilah, our prayer service, is based on the Korbanot, the sacrifices that were performed in the ancient Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. We went, so to speak, from barbecue to poetry. Bruce is doing the same thing with “Land of Hope and Dreams”; before he creates something new, he goes back to tradition, Mesorah.

Next, we should appreciate that “Land of Hope and Dreams” was inherently a religious work, before Bruce even began composing his rendition, when it was just a latent idea. It cannot go unrecognized that he was looking to these older songs with spiritual themes and a Gospel sound to render his composition.

It is no surprise that before we even look at the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the music conveys a similar gospel instrumental feel, conjuring up a sense of the sacred. This is evident regardless of what faith community the listener comes from. The power of the devotional sound of the song reaches even those who are not believers at all.

Now let us analyze the lyrics of both “People Get Ready” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” The theme is people preparing for heaven, or some kind of eschatological experience, leading to a better world. In our theological language, we might call this Olam Habah, the world to come, Yimot Hamashiach, the days of the Messiah, Geulah, redemption, or simply pursuing Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. The train in the song is clearly a metaphor for these types of themes.

However, Bruce does something very different in “Land of Hope and Dreams,” where he makes a fascinating departure from “People Get Ready.” In “People Get Ready,” who is on the train? “The righteous and the holy.” In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” who is on the train? On board are “Saints and sinners,” “losers and winners,”and “whores and gamblers.” In fact, in “People Get Ready” we hear, “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner.” In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Bruce welcomes sinners along with the saints onto the train.

In other words, the holy and the unholy, everyone is welcome on the train. The train in “People Get Ready” is a vehicle for redemption, but its riders are only the saintliest. Bruce concludes “Land of Hope and Dreams” with the most inclusive thought of all: “you just get on board.” Just engage in the power of redemption, no matter who you are, he tells us. Simply try. Start.

Two elements are going on here that are very basic to Bruce. For one, he shows an interest in marginalized, even problematic individuals, such as the people he deals with on the Nebraska Album. Bruce also tries to understand and relate to the perspective of Cain, in “Adam Raised A Cain,” the second song on the album Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Additionally, Bruce is advocating for inclusivity. Some might recall the famous quote by Bruce, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Bruce repeated this frequently during the Born In The USA tour. Furthermore, the idea of redemption is probably one of the most common themes in Bruce’s music. For example, in “Thunder Road” (the first song on Born To Run), we hear, “Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” In the song “The River” (the sixth song on The River), Bruce’s characters say to themselves in the chorus, “We’d go down to the river and into the river we’d dive, Oh down to the river we’d ride,” as if the river offers the challenged people in this song a baptism, or what we might call Tevilah, immersion in a Mikveh.

Let us return to “Land Of Hope And Dreams.” I think something else is also going on here that is at the very nexus of Bruce’s music and Yom Kippur. This brings us to one of the significant moments of the Yom Kippurliturgy. The recitation of the Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot, the Thirteen Attributes Of Faith. What is one of the central narratives of Yom Kippur liturgy? The text that runs through these Tefilot, prayers, is the story of the Egel Hazahav, the Golden Calf.

The story is told in Sefer Shemot, Exodus Chapters 32 to 34. Moshe, Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah and the Luchot, the Tablets. The people build a Golden Calf and worship it. In Shemot 32:10 God says, and I am paraphrasing here, “That is it, I am destroying them all (the Israelites). I will create a new people based on you Moshe.” In Shemot 32:11-13 Moshe uses two arguments to convince God not to destroy the Israelites:

  1. This is why you took the Israelites out of Egypt? To destroy them?
  2. Remember the Avot, the Patriarchs, which is a way of referencing our Brit, our Covenantal Relationship with God.

In making these points, it is as if Moshe is saying, “You cannot kill them, God – not because of them, but because of you. You will not be you, God, if you do this. You will not be God.” The text that eventually comes out of this conversation between God and Moshe is the Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot, the Thirteen Attributes Of God, Shemot 34:5-7, which is, if you think about it, God’s DNA. (Obviously, God does not have DNA; my point here, is that the Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot are a way for us to try to understand God.) We repeat these Thirteen Attributes throughout Yom Kippur.

They are:

Lord! Lord! God Compassionate and of Grace, Slow to anger, and abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousandth generation, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and transgression, and who cleanses.

If I had to pick out one of the Midot, one of the attributes that is the key quality of God that is playing out in this story, it is Chanun, Grace. That is the ultimate reason that God forgives Bnai Yisrael, the Israelites. You cannot earn grace. Rather, Grace is bestowed upon us by God. Grace is the idea that we are not worthy of forgiveness, but God will grant us Grace. That is what God does in the story of the Golden Calf.

As the commentary Tosefot on the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b says:

Chanun means, that The One shows Grace during a time of distress, to redeem the one who cries out, as it is written “The One shall assuredly show you Grace, in response to the sound of your cry”. (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 30:19). This attribute means that, as it were, The One is compelled to show Grace even unjustifiably, to the one who cries out, “For when [someone] cries out to Me, I shall listen. For I am Gracious, Chanun.” (Shemot 22:26). … The term Chanun, also, connotes an undeserved gift, as we say in the Talmud Brachot 6a “I shall show grace to whom I show grace”. (Shemot 33:19)

Let us return to the Shelosh-‘Esreh Middot, particularly, Chanun, Grace. I think by reciting these texts on Yom Kippur, we are playing out the same experience. We are saying to God, just as Moshe did, we are not worthy of your forgiveness, but you have to grant us grace. Not because of us but because of you, God.

I believe Bruce is dealing with Grace in “Land Of Hope And Dreams” by stating that everyone is on the train, which is bringing people who are clearly imperfect to this better world. Furthermore, Bruce seems to be very interested in the topic of Grace, particularly in the podcast, “Renegades, Born In The USA,” that Bruce recorded with President Obama. Bruce was fascinated when the President sang “Amazing Grace” in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa C. Pickney June 26, 2015, at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina, after Reverend Pickney was horrifically murdered along with eight of his parishioners.

The theme of the entire eulogy that morning was Grace. President Obama pointed out that the families of the victims when they saw the white supremacist murderer in court, engaged in grace towards him. “Blinded by hatred,” President Obama preached, “he [the White Supremacist murderer] failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace. This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones.”

To be clear: President Obama, the families of the victims of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. shooting, nor I were not condoning murder or racism. Quite to the contrary, we must call it out. One can raise a voice of moral conscience and engage in Grace at the same time. (In the book Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, the author Jennifer Berry points out that that the aftermath of this church shooting is more complicated. Some family members of the victims have shown grace to the shooter, but others have not.)

When I heard the President’s eulogy, I wondered whether we Jews would exhibit Grace in the same situation. When the Tree of Life Shooting occurred on October 27, 2018, I flew to Pittsburgh, just days after the attack, to show solidarity. I attended the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal. You might remember their story.  Cecil and David had Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental disabilities. Cecil and David loved going to services. They went every Shabbat. They sat in the back of the synagogue, greeting everyone as they entered. It is possible that as the gunman came in, they welcomed him and wished him a Shabbat Shalom just before he murdered them.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is the Rabbi of New Light Congregation, one of three communities that worshiped at Tree of Life. Rabbi Perlman saved two of his congregants by ushering them into a storage room. His wife, Dr. Beth Kissileff, is a brilliant professor of comparative literature and an extraordinary writer and journalist. Beth and I have known each other since we were fourteen.

I asked Beth whether she had found Grace, Chanun. She said yes, adding that she does not put her energy into hate or revenge. Instead, in addition to so many acts of Chesed, kindness, she responded to the shooting by writing articles for the 929 project. 929 is a program where participants learn a chapter of Tanakh, Bible, every day and complete the whole Bible, in 3 and half years. Dr. Kissileff, brings her amazing talent to 929. Through Chanun, she went from darkness to light, or in Bruce’s words in the song “The Rising,” “dancing in sky filled with light.” Perhaps not dancing, but she has responded to hate by bringing light into the world.

Please do not misunderstand me. Killing and antisemitism are evil. Dr. Kissileff, nor I are stating otherwise. We must protest. However, if these people, in the worst situations in the world, can find Grace in their hearts, could we not act with more Grace towards each other?

I do not know about you, but in my experience, we seem to live in such an unforgiving time. Friendships, family relationships, synagogue, organization, and professional connections, seem to break so easily these days, whether due to politics, culture, religious extremism, identity issues, or tribalism. I am not suggesting in any way that we give up our morality, ideology, faith, or the rule of law. There needs to be consequences to people’s actions. However, I wonder if the quality of Grace, Chanun, could transform our community, our people, our country and our world.

I think the critical building blocks to developing the qualities of Grace, Chanun, are strength, faith, hope, and love. So, as Bruce sings in “Into the Fire”:

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

If we can do this, we can reach the “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

About the Author
Rabbi David Kalb is the Director of the Jewish Learning Center, a program of Ohr Torah Stone. He is responsible for the creative, educational, spiritual, and programmatic direction of the Jewish Learning Center.
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