In an interview with the Jewish Ledger, Seth Rogovoy, author of a new book on Jewish themes in the work of Bob Dylan, makes this interesting connection:
More recently, in his song “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan sings, “I was born here and I’ll die here/Against my will.” That’s a direct lift from the Pirkei Avot 4:29: “Against your will you were born. Against your will you will die.”
Rogovoy’s identification of the midrash as the source for one of the most powerful lines in one of Dylan’s most powerful songs is indeed an astute work of scholarship, giving us a genuinely new insight into the song. What is equally interesting is to go back to the original text, and see how Dylan does not just appropriate it, he also “turns” it in a new direction.
For after the phrasing that Dylan uses in the song — “against your will you were born; against your will you live; against your will you die” — the passage from the Pirkei Avot goes on: “against your will you are destined to give an account before the King Who rules over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.” While the dread of judgment hangs over the passage, it also carries a counterpoint of hope: God does exist, there is life after death, and thus a purpose to life — to make oneself fit for the passage, worthy of a good verdict from the divine Judge.
Yet there is no such counterpoint in the lyrics of Dylan’s song: no assumption of a life beyond, no hope, no purpose, not even “the murmur of a prayer.” He has taken a passage which denotes an unquenchable faith in God and put it into a context of the bleakest existential despair.
But there is yet a further turning. The very beauty of the song serves as a counterpoint to the despairing lyrics. The actual experience of the recording as a whole — the haunting and majestic music, the vivid emotion and deep humanity put across in the singing (despite the singer’s insistence that his “sense of humanity has gone down the drain”) — is itself redemptive, or at least sustaining. Here — at least for the duration of the song — there is meaning, there is engagement, there is beauty, there is truth. If our flawed, conflicted, brief and brittle human existence can produce such works of depth and power, then it does have worth and purpose — no matter what happens after the coming darkness finally arrives…even if “beyond here lies nothing.”