David Kalb
Rabbi Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center

The Promise Land: Passover with Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have been performing the New York Metropolitan leg of their current tour recently. I was fortunate enough to be there for three of the nights, at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan (Shabbat ended at 8:10 PM. I arrived very late) , Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and Belmont Park on Long Island. There is a second night at Belmont which is on Yom Tov and the last night is on a Friday night at the Prudential Center in Newark so I will obviously not be able to attend those shows.

The fantastic music and passion of this amazing man made these three nights utterly magical to me. A Springsteen concert moves me completely, both emotionally and spiritually, providing true moments of pure elation. There is something intangible about Bruce’s music, which helps display his personality in a very spiritual light. He sometimes speaks like a preacher, enrapturing the crowd in the experience.

What I love most about the Boss (Bruce’s famous nickname) are the themes of introspection and transformation within his music. These themes thoroughly resonate with me, as they are reminiscent of the Prophets of the Bible, who also critiqued their world for its moral ills. Like the prophets, Bruce consistently sings and speaks out about those who are often marginalized in our society.

Bruce performing two of these concerts, before and during Pesach (Passover) inspired me to examine the holiday through the lens of his music. Passover is a time where we think about the ideas of freedom and redemption, as well as how to get closer to God through tikkun olam (repairing the world). Attending these shows was an essential part of my Pesach experience. Many of his songs have deep social and spiritual messages, so it was hard to choose only a few to reflect upon here.

“Badlands” and “Wrecking Ball” both speak to the challenges of life, and how as individuals and as a community, we can face those burdens head on. These two songs reminded me of the section the Seder just as we are about to finish Maggid, where tell the story of the Exodus of Egypt and we begin the first portion of Hallel, prayers and songs that praise God for taking us out of slavery. This paragraph reads as follows, Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, lavish, bless, raise high, and acclaim He who made all these miracles for our ancestors and for us: He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to [celebration of] a festival, from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption. And let us say a new song before Him, Hallelujah!”

Like many people, I reflect on personal and world problems. There is nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, there is everything right about this. However, we have a tendency to allow this reflection to devolve into obsession. Both Bruce Springsteen’s music and these ideas from the Seder teach us that we cannot be enveloped by the difficulties of life.

“Born to Run” and “Thunder Toad” hit us very powerfully with the theme of a journey, like the one we recount at the Seder. After we complete the Four Questions, we sing Avadim Hayinu (“We Were Slaves”). This Haggadah here renders the Exodus very personal. We are told that if God had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh. Bruce does the same thing in “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road.” Not only are he and his characters going on a journey, but we as the listener are also , on the journey as well.  Furthermore, just as the Exodus journey is both physical and spiritual, Bruce Springsteen sings of transcending not only location but also the challenges of life.

Bruce’s song, “Johnny 99,” forces us to confront economic issues, unemployment, and crime and how they have affected so many Americans. Songs like this keep us keenly aware of the obligation of Tikun Olam. Just before the four questions after Kiddush we recite the Ha Lachma Anya, in which we invite “all those who are hungry” to join us to eat,” a statement of our responsibility to help the poor. A Springsteen show also contains tangible righteous acts. Bruce always invites local charitable organizations to his concerts and encourages audience members to donate to them. He also frequently performs benefit concerts, displaying the true qualities of a mensch.

These concerts have given me a way to analyze the Passover experience in a new light. If you are an avid Jewish text reader but not a Springsteen fan, give his songs a spin. If you love the Boss’s music, but rarely study Jewish texts, take a look at some of the great works of Jewish learning. Either way, it might be a new way to venture into the “The Promised Land”.

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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