Rosh HaShana: Are we just “Dust in the Wind”?

After midnight somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike driving back from a wedding, I was jolted back to my angsty teens when the haunting soulful lyrics and minor key melody of a song that traveled with me for years, pierced the night.

I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone, All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity.…”

If you are of a certain age or just musically grounded in progressive rock music of the 1970s, you know what comes next. In fact, you are probably already humming the line….

Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.”

The simplicity of the message resonated with me back then and curiously, dove-tailed with my deepening attachment to my Jewish tradition, a journey which had begun a few years prior and was steam rolling along through high school. It was not surprising, therefore, that “Dust in the Wind” evoked biblical themes I was already familiar with. The Book of Genesis, using the Hebrew word ‘afar,’ describes God forming man from the dust like covering of the earth: “God formed man, soil from the earth”(2:7). And a chapter later, Genesis continues using the same word, “From dust you were taken and from dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

I knew from dust, you could say. And apparently, so did Kerry Livgren, a founding member and guitarist for the band Kansas and the composer of Dust in the Wind.

But the biblical references to dust as a metaphor for ephemeral life did not end in Genesis. Really, they were just beginning and the word and theme continues throughout the books of the Bible including famously in the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“And the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who gave it” (12:17). This line is followed immediately by “Futility of futilities, said Koheleth, all is futile”. And a few sentences later the entire book of Ecclesiastes concludes with the warning that God will be calling all creatures to account.

And so, to hear Dust in the Wind for the first time in years, in the depths of the night and a week before the Jewish High Holy Days when we believe we are being called by God to account, was a jarring moment for me. And I have been thinking about Dust in the Wind since, even as I am thinking about the upcoming high holy days. Are we all just “dust in the wind”?

To be more precise, the first stanza of the song states “they are all dust in the wind”, referring to our dreams, just mentioned the line before and to “all we do” which follows shortly thereafter. Our actions are dust in the wind. But the second stanza sharpens the point and clearly states “Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind“. We are, after all, an accumulation of our actions and if our actions are fleeting then perhaps we, our lives, are too. As a teenager and later young adult in college these ideas seemed at least plausible, worthy of consideration, depressing as that was. We are from dust after all, according to the Torah. And we return to dust according to the book of Ecclesiastes. Kansas however, offered a solution of sorts to our temporality:

Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky“…our lives may be dust in the wind, but we leave the physical world to carry on in our place even though we can not change that since “all your money won’t another minute buy,” the lyric continues.

The song seemed very Jewish to me, especially since it even includes a lengthy violin solo that could be mistaken for a Klezmer tune.

Whether Kansas’ message was truly a Jewish one or not was even more confounding since the theme of “from dust you came and to dust you return” (Genesis 3:19), shows up in one of the central prayers of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, toward the end of the stirring prayer “Unetanah Tokef”. That citation is than followed immediately by the following passage:

“We are like broken shards, like dry grass, and like a withered flower, like a passing shadow and vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream”

Pretty somber.

Fortunately for me, while I have been humming and re-listening to Dust in the Wind in these days leading to the high holy days, I have also been humming and re listening to pop Israeli recordings of various Selichot, mostly from the Sephardic tradition. The high holy days are preceded by the daily recitation of a series of special prayers of introspection and supplication called Selichot. Some of these prayers have been popularized in Hebrew song and are now easy to listen to on music streaming platforms. And these soulful recordings while presenting themes of our fallibilities as humans, have served as a counterpoint to the themes of hopelessness presented by Kansas way back in 1978 in Dust in the Wind.

The tune I keep coming back to which has been recorded by many Israeli artists is titled simply, “Ben Adam” (literally, son of man).

“Ben Adam, why are you sleeping? Arise and offer words of petition. Pour out your soul in conversation with and seek forgiveness from the Master of the Universe…but, do not tarry, for the days will soon pass…”

The Selichot, and I believe, Judaism overall, acknowledge Man’s temporality but soundly rejects the idea that our lives are meaningless simply because life is ephemeral. We are in fact called to make a difference with the time we have, limited though it is. Judaism calls on us to connect to our four thousand year old history and in so doing, to transcend our own temporality. And while we are here we are called upon to do our best. And when our efforts fall short, we must seek forgiveness and begin anew.

The song “Dust in the Wind” has rattled around in my head for a long, long time. It will not easily go away. But I am ready to slowly let it return, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

Dust in the Wind, by Kansas
I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind

(Now) don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind.

The smallest blessings

The eve of another new year on the Jewish calendar is hours away, a time that beckons one to look forward in hope and prayer for health, happiness and prosperity and to look back at what one can improve upon. Judaism often goes big and the new year blessings are one example. Just this morning however, I was reminded that it’s okay and maybe desirable when wishing for the future, to go small.

I was leaving a store in an industrial area and was taken aback to see a man on a corner near the main street sitting in a wheel chair with a hand written sign. He must have driven there. There are no homes nearby and no bus service that I’ve seen. The man has no legs, neither a right nor a left. He was smiling and his face looked happy and healthy. This was not a homeless man but probably a veteran I considered who was very healthy with two legs until he was not.

His sign said “Be happy, you’re alive. Jesus loves you”. I could quibble with the end of his message but I can not argue with his premise. I froze, locked eyes with him, smiled and he smiled back and waved. I wanted to rush out and speak to him but traffic was building behind me. He was a man with a message important any day but resonant on the eve of Rosh HaShana. As I drove away I wondered about the days after he lost his legs and whether he had a positive outlook from the beginning of his tragedy when the doctors delivered the terrible news or whether he grew into his happiness with years of therapy, battling anger and depression.

He reminded me of a patient I was asked to see in the hospital, a large man, paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a permanent tracheostomy. That man, in middle age, had also been able-bodied until he was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. He lay there and breathed and spoke a bit. He wanted to give me encouragement. He recited the final sentence in the final chapter in the book of Psalms, “Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah” and he shared the Talmudic explication: Praise God and be grateful for every breath you take.

It takes a man who lost all his abilities save the ability to breathe to proselytize about the gift of breath. It takes a man who lost his legs to proselytize about the gift of life. It takes someone who has healed in some fashion after suffering a searing personal tragedy or an unthinkable loss to look around with a sense of awe at what remains.

“Be happy. You’re alive”.

There exist rare moments in our busy lives when that slimmest glimmer of light cracks through the thick wall that separates reality and hope, where the mundane and holy bump against each other in the darkness and where the person we are and the person we can be come so close to each other they can almost kiss one another. But never do. These are the moments when for the briefest moment we appreciate just being alive.

One of my sons was out for a walk this week in a forested area and met a seasoned birder. She was spending the morning peering into the trees. It is the fall migration of warblers, the small colorful songbirds that fly thousands of miles back and forth. The birder had binoculars. He didn’t. It is Corona times so not the time to ask to borrow a stranger’s binoculars. He strained to see the warblers with his naked eyes and decided to return soon with his own binoculars. He will need them to see these birds that are quite small, what the woman called “our tiny travelers”. When you begin to celebrate just being alive, seeing a “tiny traveler” is a moment of pure joy.

While in these Corona times we need to hope and pray for health for ourselves and for peoples around the globe, we hopefully can also learn to appreciate and find deep joy from the uncelebrated moments of life, a painless footstep, an easy breath or a chance encounter with a tiny traveler.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

The still, small, voice…

When I finally stopped gasping for air I realized what I had done.

After plodding along for the past few years with no attention to speed I decided to see if I could run faster. I looked around and found many recommendations and decided to try interval training: Run a lap at normal speed than run the same lap faster. Repeat. And repeat again and again.

After panting I realized I was able to increase my speed by 20%, if only for a short period of time. I did not know what I had accomplished while I was running, only after I stopped.

The Jewish high holidays have concluded. The liturgy for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is filled with images of the majesterial as we proclaim God the Master of the Universe. We listen to the primal sound of a ram’s horn, the shofar, to punctuate the day. And in one stirring paragraph we describe the power of that sound upon our hearts. But that sentence is mysteriously juxtaposed to the most enigmatic phrase of the day. The sound of the shofar will be sounded, the prayer states, and a “still, thin sound will be heard”.

That phrase comes from the book of Kings 1, chapter 19 and concludes a section about Elijah the prophet who had reestablished God’s honor before crowds of idol worshippers, including Israelites who had strayed from their belief in God. Tired from his battle for truth Elijah beseeched God to end his life. God responded by sending an angel who led Elijah on a 40 day journey to a cave from where he witnessed a sound so loud it crushed rock, caused a devastating earthquake and a great fire.

“God is not there” we are told after each cataclysmic event. Elijah did not find God in the maelstrom. But than a “still, small voice” appeared and there is where Elijah reconnected to his Maker. Immediately afterward we read Elijah leaves his cave and re-enters the world, appointing a king for this nation and for that one. He begins to re-build the world. 19th and 20th century naturalist writers have borrowed this phrase as well and often refer to the “still, small voice” they hear in the forests and the fields.

And I thought of this scene finally standing upright after bracing myself on my knees doubled over, oxygen deprived, the lactic acid burn starting to ebb. We don’t know what we have accomplished in the midst of the thing, in the middle of a run, or long hike. Or in the midst of raising our children. Indeed, physiologists believe that endurance is increased not during the quickened pace while running but rather in the moments right afterward when the the cardiovascular system adjusts to the new challenge.

It is only in the calm moments that follow our accomplishments that we, like Elijah, can realize the truth of our lives, and the work we have done and the work we have yet to accomplish.