Dylan’s Never Ending Tour Pauses for Days of Awe

Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour,” which has been barnstorming its way through the Midwest, will go on hiatus for the next few weeks, the time period when observant Jews traditionally dial back if not completely cease working and turn their thoughts to the sorts of spiritual concerns Dylan sings about in numbers like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Not Dark Yet,” two songs from his Grammy Award-winning comeback album, Time Out of Mind (1997), that resonate with imagery drawn from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

As per the Jewish calendar, this year Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year, the day that officially begins the Days of Awe — commences on the evening of September 8. Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast day that begins at sundown on September 17.

Dylan’s tour closes down tonight, Sept. 4, and doesn’t resume until October 6, after the time in which Jews traditionally complete the spiritual process of teshuvah, for which there is no good single-word English translation, but which includes a stock-taking of one’s life, an accounting with G-d of one’s deeds, repentance and forgiveness, and a rededication to living one’s life according to Halacha, the spiritual path or way provided by the legal and ethical teachings of Judaism.

As I point out in my book, BOB DYLAN: Prophet Mystic Poet, in recent years, Dylan has been spotted annually at Yom Kippur services – typically at whatever Chabad (an Orthodox Hasidic sect) synagogue he finds himself nearest to as he constantly tours the country. A few years ago, at Congregation Adath Israel, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he is said to have received the third aliyah to the Torah – an honor providing an individual blessing – and to have returned in the evening for the concluding Neilah service, whose central imagery is of a penitent standing at a gate or doorway entreating G-d’s mercy to be written into the Book of Life before the doors are shut and barred, an experience Dylan put into song on Time Out of Mind’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”:

Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.

In “Not Dark Yet,” the narrator stands before the Lord beseeching his forgiveness one last time before the sun goes down. He sets the scene of the Yom Kippur prayer service in the song’s first line, “Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day” – since everything is basically forbidden (eating, study, idle chatter), all that’s really left to do on Yom Kippur is to pray, to achieve that state of mystical union with G-d by putting oneself through the spiritual ringer. Or as Dylan has it:

It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel…

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

After describing a life that has led to his “sense of humanity … gone down the drain,” where “behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” in the first line of the final verse, the narrator reconciles himself to a life that is, after all, fundamentally not one of our own choosing: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,” he sings. The phrase recalls Judah HaNasi’s redaction of Biblical wisdom gathered in the Mishnah around the year 200 CE, where it is written, “Against your will you were born, against your will you die” [Mishnah 4:29].
The connection to the Yom Kippur liturgy is in the line that follows, “And the living are destined to be judged.” The adage has come down to us part of the Pirkei Avot, the “Sayings [or Ethics] of the Fathers,” which are contained in every traditional prayerbook as part of the Sabbath ritual, to be studied on Saturday afternoons for the period between Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

The singer concludes with a vivid description of the final moments of the Neilah service:

I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Thanks to Bob Dylan Examiner‘s Harold Lepidus for inspiring this blogpost. Read Harold’s posting about the timing of ticket sales for the NeverEnding Tour.

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2 Responses to “Dylan’s Never Ending Tour Pauses for Days of Awe”

  1. diana says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post.
    Dylan’s biblical references almost always give me a sense of just what you are describing here.

    Having been to Seminary I have studied some of the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings and the Gospels and even before that understood that Jesus teachings/ministry/calling are of course rooted in Judaism-(It is amazing how many people -Christian and not- are shocked when this is brought to their awareness! Seriously! Its like they never had a clue that Jesus was a practicing Jew. Sheesh)And of course he was not founding a religion But I digress- and with my usual past middle age brain have lost the thread of where I was going with this- ugh.

    Though I was a practicing Sufi years ago (Westernized-Unity of all Religions sort of thing) and have participated in some Jewish Holiday Observances I never knew about the Neilah service or the observance.
    Your description and the explication of Bob’s lyrics was very moving. Though I haven’t participated in any organized religion for years and I admit my studying has lapsed and reading is just throw away diversion for the most part these days I have to say I feel inspired and somehow moved or called to participate in some small way in coming back before the door is shut and barred.

    Thank You for that-
    And of course thank BD for all the ways he moves us.

    Now- I will reread this article and also print it out.
    Thanks again

  2. starchild says:

    I really enjoyed your book. it actually conceptualize into words many thoughts in my head concerning Bob’s lyrics. three years ago I put together a playlist of live performances for me to listen to during the ten days. it was aptly named ‘Ten Days of Bob’. It was updated this year with six new additions…

    Cold Iron Bounds
    Every Grain Of Sand
    Gotta Serve Somebody
    Tight Connection To My Heart
    (Has Anybody Seen My Love)
    License To Kill
    Gates Of Eden
    Shelter From The Storm
    Seeing The Real You At Last
    I’ll Remember You
    What Good Am I?
    Disease Of Conceit
    Highway 61 Revisited
    Not Dark Yet
    I Shall Be Released
    The Man In Me
    Forever Young
    I And I
    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
    Blowin’ In The Wind
    Thunder On The Mountain
    God Knows
    City Of Gold

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