Facing the Strange Changes: Bowie’s Torah

“Turn and face the strange changes.”  That’s the perfect Bowie line, the artistic battle-cry of a singer always changing – shifting costumes, switching sexual orientation, inventing new personas, and then, finally, like all surviving 60’s rockers, the strangest change: aging, graying, slowing down, dying. Bowie’s brilliance – his Torah – was how he sang about changes with just the right mix of dread and celebration, horror and relief, as if we could best embrace the beauty and inevitability of change when we acknowledge just how strange it really is.

As a pulpit rabbi, it’s part of my job to help folks face the strange changes.  This Sunday there’s a wedding and a baby naming; next week a bar mitzvah and an unveiling.  Funeral’s don’t schedule themselves so far in advance, but they’ll come; they always do – the strangest change of all, and the hardest to face.  I thought of my own changes last night when I happened on a photo of myself when I’d just moved to San Diego. Dark hair!  Little children!  Now the hair’s all gray and the children are adults.  Strange changes, indeed.

I usually read the story of the Red Sea crossing as a metaphor for humans in transition.  The change here is from slavery to freedom, but you can imagine it as childhood to adulthood, or dependence to responsibility, or womb to birth with the narrow passage through the sea symbolizing the birth canal.  There’s a wonderful Midrash where the Israelites divide into four bickering sects right at the mouth of the Red Sea, with the Egyptians closing in. One group urges them to fight, another to flee, another to return to Egypt, another to pray.  That’s often how we face the strange changes, kicking and screaming, wondering how we can turn back time, arguing with ourselves, with our families, with God, with fate.  Then, if we’re lucky and wise, the inevitability strikes us; we jump in, and maybe the water parts.

This story always reminds me of my late mother. Her Hebrew name was Miriam, so this was her favorite Torah, her favorite image: Miriam dancing with the women, celebrating freedom. Her passing was, at the time, the hardest and strangest change I’d ever faced.  Partly, she was just too young, and it happened too soon. (But when doesn’t it happen too soon?)  Not long ago a congregant lamented to me that he’d had to “say goodbye to too many folks I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to.”  It’s a line that’s haunted me, and it describes exactly how I felt about my mother’s death.  I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.  But even beyond the searing pain of losing a parent, there was the particular circumstance of her illness.  She had a brain tumor, a foreign thing pressing on the wrong places of her brain, so her personality changed almost immediately. She spoke differently, walked differently, manifested startlingly different preferences, laughed more, cried less, hummed and sang songs I didn’t recognize.

She wasn’t afraid to die, but this wasn’t a tribute to her courage or nobility of spirit.  She changed into someone who was no longer afraid of anything. By the end, the shape of her face somehow shifted, so she looked like a perfectly normal person, but not at all like my mother.  Strange changes.  In many ways my experience with her was a kind of master class in transitions, in learning to face the bizarre inevitability of human transformation. I now read the Red Sea story as her crossing over to the other side, from life to death, from this world to the next, and then picking up a tambourine and dancing. It’s a comforting image.

The night Bowie died, I listened to his song “Changes” over and over again.  (Strange change:  As a kid I would have had to hunt through record stores to find the album or the single.  Now I spend ten seconds thumbing through my phone and there it is).  As I listened to his weird, otherworldly, yet strangely comforting voice, stuttering through his insistence that we face our strange changes, his admonition to his fellow rockers that “pretty soon you’re gonna get older,” I wondered if I’d matured when it came to changes – my own, my children’s, my friends’, my community’s, the world’s.   Was I better prepared to accept them with grace and courage?  Have I actually turned to face the strange changes? I think I have, and if that’s the case, I owe it to my mother.  It’s a gift she gave me by changing in such strange ways, in dying.  Or maybe I owe it to David Bowie.

About the Author
Phillip is the West Coast Vice President for Shalom Hartman of North America. He has published six books, including four novels, most recently Silwan, a murder mystery. He has also published hundreds of articles and opinions pieces in dozens of journals. Phillip is married to Rabbi Susan Freeman, and has two sons, Benjamin and Ilan.
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