God’s Emissary Turns: Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust”

October 2, 2011 at 2:05 am, by

I’m still on a Bruce Springsteen kick. (This might last the whole Jewish year of 5772. BTW, happy new year!)

Since my first listen, I’ve felt that Devils & Dust* is one of the Boss’s most intimate and powerful albums.

On both of days of Rosh Hashanah, I preceded the words of the Musaf Amidah with “Hinneni” (literally: “Here I am”). In this prayer of humility and hope, the service leader asks, among other things, that our prayers be accepted as if they were recited in a pleasing voice emerging from a person of good repute.

Immediately following this request, we hear four very nervous words: Vetig’ar besatan leval yastineni (“Berate Satan so that Satan does not satanize me!”). (Fun fact: “Satanize” is an awesome verb!)

The Sheli’ach Tzibbur—literally, “the Emissary of the Community”—prays that her or his actions and words be deemed pure during this trying time of judgement. It is hoped that the Sheli’ach Tzibbur be recognized as favorable before God—standing by God’s side.

Rethinking the title track “Devils & Dust,” I realized how shockingly parallel Springsteen’s lyrics stand next to these words of “Hinneni.”

Springsteen is said to have written “Devils & Dust” from the viewpoint of an American soldier sent to Iraq.

The soldier has “God on [his] side” and even a “God-filled soul” that, standing in the dangers of war, may yet fall victim to devilish “fear.” It’s no mystery what tragedies may arise with this “fear.” The soldier’s “got [his] finger on a trigger” and sees “just devils and dust” in the eyes of the enemy.

But “devils and dust” permeate the purview of everything the soldier sees. The soldier asks “What if the things you do to survive / Kill the things you love?” When survival and vocation kill the soldier’s soul, he wearily admits, “When I look into my heart / There’s just devils and dust.”

In the song of Springsteen, an emissary of the American people stands satanized. God’s soldier becomes a devil because he tries to survive—the wrong way, doing the wrong thing.

In reciting “Hinneni,” an emissary of the Jewish people stands fearful of being satanized—being overcome by devilishly evil inclinations, praying for the wrong thing. Wanting to be on God’s good side is a big deal, and being so sure that you are on God’s good side is a daunting and maybe even arrogant kind of thing to imagine.

In this time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we hope that our idea of what is good in the world is synonymous with what God hopes is good in the world. We hope our prayers come from good, sincere people.

We reflect on the importance of our own actions and the influences we have on each other; we hope our eyes see a world full of so much more than devils and so much more than dust.

I hope the words I said over Rosh Hashanah were not arrogant, and I hope my words were Godly. I hope my sense of what is good is not corrupted by some evil inclination.

The poetry of Ecclesiastes 12:7 reminds us that people, at death, will return to Earth’s dust.

One day I will return to the dust. But today I hope there are no devils in me.


Here I am.

*Many Springsteen fans consider Devils & Dust among Bruce’s weakest albums. My two cents: This album is way too overlooked.

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