It’s finale season on television these days. Writers try to make the finales the most compelling episodes of the season. The best stories drag us into their narratives so deeply that we feel the emotions of the characters and the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. The story may not be true or real, but the emotions the viewer experiences are very true and very real.
This week’s Torah portion feels like the season finale of the Joseph saga. There’s a tendency to lose focus of the Biblical narrative and forget to experience the story. I make sure to tune in to the Joseph epic every year. It’s my favorite story in the Bible, and the season finale never fails to emotionally engage me. Joseph’s ancient drama of intrigue, fratricide, conspiracy, love, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation has been enthralling us for millennia but it has always been an old story about Joseph and his brothers. I can relate to elements of the story, like any other good story, but it’s always been in terms of “Joseph the person who lived in ancient Canaan with a starring role in a very old tale.”
I think there is a great need for Modern Midrash. Our old Midrashic literature is rich and full of beautiful insights from a world very different than our own. All good Midrash channels the struggles of the Zeitgeist through the lens of the Bible. Modernity has its own unique challenges that demand our attention, and we should scour the Bible for new interpretations and ideas that speak to our contemporary battles.
One of the best examples of Modern Midrash is Eli Schwebel’s heartfelt Ani Yosef from his Hearts Mind album. Hearts Mind represents a necessary evolution in the Orthodox Jewish music genre. The last few decades have seen almost no musical innovation and have taken a step backwards lyrically. Ani Yosef and the rest of the album reverse that trend. The exquisite music and lyrics do not sound familiar at all in style or substance. In my mind, that is reason enough to celebrate this musical treasure.
More profoundly, Ani Yosef captures the tension of modern religious struggles spectacularly. It zooms out of the dramatic one-time encounter between Joseph and his brothers, turning his personal struggle into a powerful archetype of a spiritual warrior wrestling with faith and experience. We hear something original in this reinterpretation of the story. It speaks to us in a new way.
I discussed this modern spiritual tension with Eli. He said,“Ani Yosef is my attempt at reconciling my struggle with God, my personal emotional and intellectual walls, my rich Jewish heritage, tradition, and culture, and my unfolding consciousness.” The song was written at a time in Eli’s life where the tension of “trying to fuse a deep sense and knowledge of oneness with the education of a very specific way to connect with God” felt overwhelming. The raw emotion of that moment in Eli’s life is the soul of Ani Yosef.
Today, Finkorswim.com proudly presents the exclusive debut of the Ani Yosef Lyric Video. Behind the bold-faced text in the video, a story is told. This is an almost perfect metaphor for all Midrash. The text is in the foreground, but the interpretation is happening in the background. This video tells a new interpretation of the Joseph story. It’s a Midrash Inception, and in a subtle way, it makes the song’s message even more profound.
I asked Eli about this new artistic Midrash that combines music with Torah, and modern life. Eli grew up singing in the home of a famous singer and is the grandson of a Chazan, which gave him an intense love for music. Their music was most often expressing the sentiment of someone outside the self. “You take a verse, add a tune, and voila, there is a connection. This is the first level, the lowest and the safest.” There is a second level too. It is original. It tells the story of a hero outside the self. The singer steps into the shoes of the hero, almost voyeuristically. “Shloima Carlebach is a great example of utilizing stories and verses as an escape from his deep inner brokenness. But he never explicitly expressed his true self. He never let go and shared his broken heart and shattered soul.” There is yet a third level, when the music becomes a true expression of self. This is what we are missing. It is the place where the inner anguish and torment is displayed with complete candor and confidence. “Where is the Orthodox Jewish Johnny Cash? Who is utilizing Jewish tradition, its symbols, or its Torah to say something intimate?”
It has become unfashionable in the Orthodox Jewish community to honestly acknowledge religious struggles. Instead, we’ve created a false binary choice. One is either in or out, seemingly arbitrarily. Challenges and personal struggles are not seriously addressed. Ani Yosef hits this tension in the bulls-eye.
Eli was very candid about this problem.
“The reason the frum world is so scared of this expression is because it speaks to what is perceived as the greatest threat to Orthodox Judaism: doubt. Any sort of doubt is considered blasphemous. The mantra is ’never doubt.’ Meaning, you may not doubt. True art and personal expression can focus and connect the entirety of the human experience, including doubt and darkness, to something beyond our personal experience. But specifically there must be a ‘from’ to go toward. If we negate and minimize the from, we lose authentic context. If we negate and minimize our truest, deepest thoughts and feelings, we lose the ability to channel or transcend those feelings. We may feel good at a kumzitz, we may dance, but the artist that awakens something deeper toward something higher, is one that is completely whole with their demons and their power when they express their soul artistically. In the eternal words of the great Bob Dylan, ‘Chaos is a friend of mine.’”
Indeed, chaos should be a friend of ours. As a society, we’ve decided that chaos is our enemy. Joseph’s life was a life of chaos. Beauty and spiritual growth emerge from chaos; we just have to embrace it.
I asked Eli about his inspiration for the song and the video.
“Towards the end of his life, my grandfather Joseph Wassner (another Yosef) and I developed a deep bond as we talked about our ideas and our struggles. This song layers the life of Biblical Yosef, imagining what he must have been going through yearning for his fathers love, dealing with the anger towards his brothers, having to deal with his identity shifting as he takes on an entirely new culture, and his ability to still hold on to the core values by which he was raised. That is exactly what I am trying to do as I discover my place in this world, as my grandfather did, as we all do. The story of Yosef is all of our stories!”
I agree. We all need to find Yosef in ourselves. We tend to see the forefathers as larger-than-life figures, and it can be impossible to relate to them. They should be viewed as archetypes of our struggles. We are selling ourselves short by idealizing the Bible heroes, because we lose the ability to connect to them in a meaningful way, which is the whole point. Find yourself in the stories. Find yourself in the Joseph story. You’ll discover that it is really true for you: Ani Yosef – I am Joseph.
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) December 24, 2014