dylan with harmonica
A young Bob Dylan during a civil rights march on August 28, 1963 (Photo/Wikimedia-National Archives and Records Administration-Rowland Scherman)

‘Forever Young’: A heartfelt hymn of fatherly trust

Numbers 4:21–7:89
Judges 13:2–13:25

“ ‘Forever Young,’ I wrote in Tucson. I wrote it thinking of my boys, not wanting to be too sentimental.”

There remains a mesmerizing immediacy to “Forever Young,” captured in one take during Bob Dylan’s recording of the slow acoustic waltz version of this heartfelt hymn on “Planet Waves” (1974). The song poises the father in the act of blessing his son, as is the Sabbath eve custom. There are many layers to Dylan’s song, “Forever Young,” but its exegetical artistry emerges in a context that inspired it the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24–27):

May the Lord bless you and protect you!
May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

Shifting from the third person “May the Lord” in this formulaic Priestly Blessing, Dylan’s lyric cuts to the chase by invoking the second person “May You.” The riveting intimacy emerges when these seventh-century BCE Paleo-Hebrew benedictions are seen in the context of recent archaeological discoveries at Ketef Hinnom — the very hill overlooking the Hinnom Valley to the southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, where Dylan celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son Samuel and blessed him. The blessing concludes: “And they [the priests] shall place My Name on” (Numbers 6:27), demonstrating the benedictions’ function as amulets to be “worn” in one’s life.

So what is the song we hope to convey to the next generation? As the Children of Israel betray their priests who serve God, their Father in Heaven, so too, do we often betray our parents’ ideals. Dylan’s song is a wishful blessing that rests upon a further act of trust: that a child’s wishes are and shall always be wise ones. This is carried further in the verse: “May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung,” alluding to the cumulative effect of blessing. While the Shabbat eve blessing includes the words “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe,” i.e., like the sons of Joseph, Dylan reframes that blessing: “May you grow up to be true.” The most disappointing moment of life happens when I look myself in the mirror and wonder why I have not been my authentic self.

He also offers: “May all your wishes come true.” Nevertheless, be careful what you wish for, lest your wish be granted. But as to your prayers, may they all come true in your lifetime, and the lifetime of your children, and your children’s children — how? By the way you live, moment to moment. This takes wisdom of experience that only emerges with the patience of living and waiting in time.

So may you be granted the gift of giving before getting. Then your getting is all the richer! What stops this? Mistaken pride and the illusion of happiness. Mistaken pride is what puts yourself before others, while Dylan reiterates time and again: “happiness is not on my list of priorities” — namely, that the search for happiness is illusory. If this song is a way to bless your child, notice that “Forever Young” does not share the wish: “May you be happy!” The direct pursuit of happiness always leads astray. This father sings to his son values that are more lasting and less illusory.

This prayer resonates with such immediacy because it is authentic in its request and thus can be answered — all in a matter of time! That is the hope. “Forever Young” is dedicated to hope. In the ashes of 9/11 terror attack of 2001, Dylan remarked: “My mind would go to young people at a time like this … ” In the face of such terror, one can only continue to be hopelessly hopeful to “see the lights surrounding you,” in that more than one light shining manifests an overflow of generosity. This hopeful moment in Dylan’s songbook lasts but a moment. Yet, even in this evanescent moment, Dylan shared his fatherly hymn as an impromptu musical gift under the Minneapolis wedding canopy of his cousin. “Forever Young” embodies proclivity for Dylan’s songbook to return deeper into the darkening misery, loneliness and exile of existence — a darkness punctured by a hopelessly hopeful moment of blessing, for the sake of his children, and the world family.