This is the season of self-reflection for us Jews all across the globe. In this period, the time after Shavuot and leading into the greatest mourning period – the 9th of Av, we try our best to correct our lacking character traits. The age-old gain of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding comes down from our father’s books. More specifically we follow a series of building blocks given to us by our so-called fathers. The series of ethics, titled Ethics of Our Fathers, Pirkei Avot in Hebrew, sets a standard guide line for an ethical existence. For me, this is very important as this was the first real learning I did once being involved with the Orthodox establishment. Pirkei Avot is fluid and timeless chronicling the lineage of our laws coming down straight from Mt. Sinai to the current study halls all around the world. The book consists of the many sayings of the many great sages thought out the Talmudic period, which spans from the destruction of the Second Temple to the codification of the Talmud by the year 600CE. One of the things that stuck me, and still does, is how these sayings are full of wisdom that is indeed timeless. You can read through the ideas of being a proper disciple of G-d, and by living a life of piety. But, we must be sure to note that it should be balanced where wealth will not blind the eye to greed, where complete immersion in Torah can lead to an anti-social existence, or where excessive joy can blind one to the seriousness of attaining the highest peaks of spirituality and connection to the divine.
What does this have to do with my usual topic of choice. Well, Hip-Hop is the all-defined, non-defined, and waiting to be defined music. Rap music has allowed its many artists to twist in these moral tales, while some insert the religious language that Pirkei Avot can relate to. One artist and song that have been reverberating, at least in my mind, is Kendrick Lamar and his song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
The song is part of his nonlinear magnum opus, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City where he weaves this narrative of his struggles being the good kid in this insane city of lost souls. It’s very poignant as he pleads for us to sing about him, as he uses stories of people who go through the life while leaving their mark, or not, on the skin of the universe. Each character fades into their fate, as the first is shot down, while the woman in the story’s voice dims and slowly fades away. However, I’m far more concerned with the second part of the song, the part where Kendrick is dying of thirst.
As the end of the first segment hits, we realize that his character’s brother was just shot. We now await his response as he’s being goaded on by his friends to take matters into his own hands. We now know that he is tired of the bystander life. It’s time to meet out vengeance as he hits the wheel, “we dying of thirst, dying of thirst, dying of thirst.” When I see those words rummaging through my mind it opens many doors of possibility. This thirst, seeking out water for the body, but also for the soul makes this plea connect with certain words of the great Jewish sages. In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, Mishna #4 reads, “Yose ben Yoezer, leader of Tz’redah, says: Let your house be a meeting place for Torah scholars; you shall become dusty in the dust of their feet; and you shall drink in their words thirstily.” The great French sage Rashi stated that, “One must approach words of Torah with thirst for them.” The thirst for knowledge could be another parallel for Kendrick as he thirsts for other options given to him by life as a black youth in America.
Moving on down the chapter we get to Mishna #11 which reads that, “Avtalyon says: Scholars, be cautious with your words, for you may incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of evil waters (heresy). The disciples who follow you there may drink and die, and consequently the Name of Heaven may be desecrated.” This verse portends the notion that we must be careful when learning, due to the damage caused by the murky waters of pseudo-teachers, scholars, and intellectuals. I would place artists here as well, hence we see many rappers who have delved in these waters, while deprecating their students’/fans’ minds. Kendrick pointed this out rapping, “Return of the student that never learned how to live righteous but how to shoot it.” The student could learn, like Torah scholars, by either choosing the “bitter toxin” of dirty water. or by choosing the “elixir of life,” ie. Torah or a righteous life.
In the end of the song we trail off to a skit hearing th soft voice of an elder lady. She sweetly asks why are these men so angry, and then extends her hand of faith. This hand of faith is extended as the libation for these thirsty souls. They then follow her through prayer, and even though they invoke Jesus there are many similarities to the Ethics of thirst, and Kendrick’s “Dying of Thirst.”