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Bruce Springsteen, Yom Kippur Poet

Finding inspiration for the 'festival of remorse' in the the rock legend's haunting anthems of angst and regret

“Those memories come back to haunt me; they haunt me like a curse.”

I’ve heard those Springsteen lines hundreds of times, but somehow, last night, coming from my radio, that moan of regret struck me with a particular force. Probably, it’s the time of year, autumn, right after Rosh Hashanah, coming on Yom Kippur, a season of regret, of darkening, in-between days, when we contemplate our past mistakes, invite regret as a special guest to invade our souls, haunt us like a curse. The younger Springsteen, in fact, was in many ways the poet of regret, the rock n’ roll High Holiday liturgist.

“We’ve got one last chance to make it real.” “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” The old man under the bridge in “Darkness on the Edge Town” who laments “I lost my money and I lost my wife. Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.”

Oddly, Springsteen composed these regretful, angst-ridden masterpieces in his mid-twenties. Listening to “The River” last night, as the story of faded love and wasted lives filled the car and my head, I wondered how such a young guy could inhabit such despairing souls. If he understood regret so well as a twenty-something rock star conquering the world, how does he feel now, after a failed marriage, losing two of his best friends, a career with plenty of ups, but also plenty of downs? The paradox of Springsteen is that he sounds much happier, more serene, now in his 60s, after years of genuine sorrow, than he did at his popular and creative peak (I’m tempted to say he was so much older then, he’s younger than that now, but I’ll leave that for another essay). He wrote, “These are Better Days” after his band broke up, after his fall from the charts.

Actually, all I have to do to understand Springsteen is contemplate our next two holidays: Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Yom Kippur (and to some extent Rosh Hashanah) is the festival of remorse. In a typical prayer, we warn God that we approach Him “like a sack filled with regret and shame” — in other words, with memories so painful they humiliate us, mistakes we can hardly bare to relive, even in the privacy of our own minds. The process is excruciating, but necessary. It’s the only way to change, to improve.

The contrast with Sukkot is astonishing. On Sukkot, we venture outdoors, accept whatever weather God throws at us, and live in the moment, no complaints, no regrets. The operative liturgical line on Sukkot is from Hallel: Zeh ha’yom asah Adonai, nagilah ve’nismechah vo — “This is the day God made, to celebrate within.” It’s as if on Sukkot we greet the morning sun and exclaim, this is the day, my day, my moment filled with blessing and wonder and potential. It’s a spirit that should accompany us all year — and it could, if it weren’t for the regrets, the memories that haunt us like curses.

But maybe we have to get through Yom Kippur to get to Sukkot, spend some time with our mistakes, note them, give them their painful due, but then move on, and greet the sun. If Springsteen is happier now (I actually have no idea, but you get the point), it’s because the wisdom that comes with aging allows us to forgive ourselves more easily, to learn from mistakes, and, above all, to count our blessings. After all, for most of my generation, pining for youth is a false nostalgia. Our early years were often a struggle — for love, to establish ourselves financially, to acquire a durable spiritual identity, to accomplish something real and lasting. We were young and foolish. It was glorious, but it wasn’t always fun. In so many ways, these are better days.

In fact, as Springsteen’s aching voice faded from the radio, I thought of my own early twenties, when I wondered what would happen to me, would love and purpose ever become my companions. For a poignant moment, my own sad, lonesome memories came back to haunt me, and, truth be told, they still haunt me like a curse. But only because it’s so much better now, this morning, waking up with the sun, and reminding myself, this is the day God made for me.

About the Author
Rabbi Philip Graubart is the author of RABBIS AND GANGSTERS, SILWAN, WOMEN AND GOD, and several other novels. His new mystery HERE THERE IS NO WHY will be published this summer. He served as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla for fifteen years and before that as senior rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. He also worked in leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the San Diego Jewish Academy. He's taught widely on Israel and Zionism, to teenagers, college students and adults.
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