26 June 2012

The Jewish Fool in the Rain

Lately I’ve been reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s song, “The Fool in the Rain.”

This led me to ask myself, can we bring religious meaning to this song?

I think we can. As to whether it is advisable, desirable, or productive to do so, let’s just say, I cannot defend myself.

The usual way of bringing religious meaning to a romantic song or poem is to interpret the object of affection as God rather than a person. As such, the story of “The Fool in the Rain” becomes a story of seeking, doubting, and in the end finding God rather than a romantic partner.

I take the message (moral?) to be that God should be sought carefully, so that we are not misled or even blinded by our keen anticipation and questing fervor. Or perhaps the message is that all we can do is remain open to God rather than seek God directly.

The song begins, you could say, with a keen anticipation of Shabbat (recall that Shabbat is traditionally defined as starting when three stars can be seen in the sky):

Well there's a light in Your eye that keeps shining
Like a star that can't wait for the night
I hate to think I've been blinded, baby:
Why can't I see you tonight?

Admittedly, this verse, like others, poses various problems to religious interpretation. For one thing, the God of Judaism does not take human form and therefore has no literal eye. Yet, we are told that humans are created humans in God’s image. So presumably human eyes reflect (however distantly) some aspect of God. Or, more simply, God created all creatures, including humans, and therefore all eyes are in some sense God’s eyes, i.e. they belong to (or at least originate from) God.

As to the religious interpretation of “baby,” I have none. This is simply not an acceptable or plausible way to refer to God. Possibly Christianity would be of some help here since baby Jesus is important in it. But I will not resort to that. I do have to give mad props to the movie Talladega Nights for hilariously featuring a main character who, when he says grace, specifically directs his thanks to the baby Jesus.

Perhaps the reason I initially thought of this crazy idea of a religious interpretation of this song is its evocative, repeated phrase “light of the love that I found.” I am reminded of the mysterious light that God created before anything was created that could radiate light, like the sun. You could resolve this by saying that God at first created only the concept of light. Or, more mysteriously, it is suggested that this first light was different in nature from later light. This first light is either gone now, or, more tantalizingly, can only be glimpsed occasionally. Mad props to G-dcast and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner for this animated teaching on that subject: http://www.g-dcast.com/bereshit.

After several stanzas of desire, doubt, and even desolation, the song concludes with the revelation that the narrator has, more or less, been looking for love in all the wrong places. Though fervent, his search has been careless: he has been on the wrong block!

I'll run in the rain till I'm breathless
When I'm breathless I'll run till I drop,
The thought of a fool's kind of careless
I'm just a fool waiting on the wrong block

Reminds me of Kohelet’s admonition,

Watch your step when you go to the house of God. Understanding is better than giving sacrifices as fools do, […]
Kohelet 4:17 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

I think of being on the wrong block as an error in the way he has framed the search. I picture him running up and down the same block, trying to find a certain building, but not bothering to consider, until late in the game, that he might be on the wrong block entirely.

Along those lines, I’d like to think that what he was looking for was in fact all around him, “impeding” his search: it was the life-giving rain itself. Again Kohelet comes to mind:

All rivers flow into the sea. Yet the sea is never full.
Kohelet 1:7 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

Like Kravitz and Olitzky, I don’t think Kohelet understood the water cycle as we do today, consisting of evaporation, precipitation, etc. But he understood that there was something cyclical going on. He cites the cyclical nature of things as examples of (or metaphors for) the general futility of things. But I wonder if it is possible to stretch the translation of Kohelet’s repeated phrase “everything is useless” to “all is without end.” This allows us to still see “without end” as “without purpose” but also as “infinite.” It allows us to see the water cycle as a wondrous, perfectly balanced cycle as well as an emblem of repeated drudgery or even misery.

By the way, “everything is useless” is often translated as “all is vanity.” Though this has intriguing connotations of narcissism, I think it comes directly from the Vulgate’s vanitas, which had no such connotation. I don’t mean to say that the English word “vanity” is wrong. For one thing, I’m not sure it is an issue of right vs. wrong. Rather, I’m just trying to help peel back layers of meaning accumulated over the millennia.

But, I’d like to return to the song, and the idea that, weirdly, it is the rain that is the light of the love that the narrator finds. Just as the whole water cycle can be seen as depressing or wondrous, rain can be seen (and indeed can be) a positive or negative force. At one of the narrator’s desolate moments, he views the clouds and the rain as impeding his search for light and love:

And the storm that I thought would blow over
Clouds the light of the love that I found

But really in the end we find out that it is his own frenetic carelessness that impeded him. Don’t blame the storm, dude.

As disconnected as many of us are from nature and agriculture, it is easy to think of rain only as an impediment, annoyance, or even a threat, in the case of floods. The desert religion of Judaism reminds us to keep things in perspective. (It also helps if you live in a climate like Los Angeles or Jerusalem, where rain goes away entirely during the summer. This helps remind you of what it would be like if rain went away entirely.) What comes to mind here is my favorite part of Exodus, where God shelters the Israelite camp with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night: another mysterious combination of water and light (of love?).

Here I must digress for a moment and give mad props to Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah, since it, unlike many haggadahs, not only mentions this part of Exodus but devotes a kickin’ full-page collage to it. Below is a scan.

Pillars of fire and cloud from Sammy Spider's Exodus

So far I’ve mentioned only the lyrics and nothing about the music of the song. It is of course hard, and perhaps even inadvisable, to impute meaning to music, at least the kind of meaning that language can have or describe.

Still, I feel compelled to note that the song’s “A-B-A” structure, though perfectly common, includes what is to me an uncommonly satisfying return to “A”. As the rhythm suddenly resumes its original, non-frenetic pace, I for one feel a profound sense of return, as if what I have sought has been found. Is this the light of the love that the narrator has found? Note that the Hebrew word for return, “teshuva,” also means repentance.

To end this silly, rambling, hopefully-not-offensive post on a despairing note:

Many words multiply futility. What gain can there be for anyone?
Kohelet 6:11 (Kravitz and Olitzky)

Well, I take it back, I can’t end there. Instead I’ll end with something written by a teacher of mine, Ivan Tcherepnin. He adds one very important line to a famous old French couplet:

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment.
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
And music remains after all else is forgotten.


  1. I added a link to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's "G-dcast" on the topic of "the light before light" in Parashat Bereshit.

  2. I added a scan of the collage of pillars of fire and cloud from Sammy Spider's Exodus.