The moment I hear something familiar in a new way, I feel a charge that to me epitomizes what it means to be alive. The moment engages us in its call to consider.
I most recently experienced one of these moments listening to the radio in my car. I heard Bon Iver, a contemporary musical artist, sing his cover of the song I Can’t Make You Love Me, made famous originally by Bonnie Raitt. Within only a few seconds of listening everything in me rushed to attention, to appreciate the beauty of the music and to notice the moment when suddenly I’m making connections all over the place, when the many tracks of my life miraculously converge to travel the same path together for a while.
I am fascinated by the phenomenon of the “cover,” when an artist takes another artist’s song and reinterprets it. Some songs are so beautiful, ring so true, and leave such an impression that they are covered over and over again. The song’s universality allows us to see our own experience in its story, or to see someone else’s.
I Can’t Make You Love Me has been covered countless times, by artists such as George Michael, Prince, Kenny Rogers (you know it tells a good story if a country artist covers it), Patti LaBelle, Boyz II Men, Adele, Bonnie Tyler, and by many competitors in reality vocal competitions. The cover I heard on the radio while in my car, Bon Iver’s cover, lingered with me. It made me want to, first, sing the song, and second, to consider again why the song leaves such an impression.
It is so raw, it is spoken from such a place of defeat and search and ultimately acceptance. It is the proclamation of worth of the heartbroken. I know I’m low, the song seems to say, but I’m me, and I have worth.
In this week’s Torah portion both God and Moses are driven to their lowest points. Out of that despair flows a mutual affirmation of both their worth, individually and to each other. We can consider the story of the aftermath of The Golden Calf from both perspectives.
Moses hears from God while still up on the mountain where he has received the 10 Commandments and other laws, that the people down below have acted basely, that God is so angry at this stiff-necked people, am k’shei oref, that God wants to destroy them all. Moses quickly goes into crisis mode, pleading with God not to destroy the Israelites, that it would look bad to the Egyptians, and that God must remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God relents on the punishment, but does not forgive the people. Moses has diffused the situation for the moment.
But when Moses descends the mountain and sees The Golden Calf and the party surrounding it, he loses it. He flies into a rage, breaks the tablets with the 10 Commandments inscribed on them, destroys The Golden Calf and grinds it up and makes the Israelites drink the gold dust.
And then, both Moses and God must face how low, how defeated, how heartbroken they are. The Israelites built an idol. The experience of the Exodus may have meant nothing. The Israelites may not believe in God. In facing this truth, they have a beautiful, honest meeting that moves the people out of the abyss and into the future.
Moses intercedes on the people’s behalf to ask for forgiveness. Moses could have separated himself from the Israelites, he did not have any part in creating The Golden Calf. But instead he aligns himself with them, they are one. Moses effectively says to God in asking for forgiveness for all of them as a people, “I Can’t Make You Love Me if You Don’t.” “They have sinned, but if you will not forgive their sin, erase me from the record which you have written.” (Exodus 32:32) I know the power of what I feel, Moses is saying, but I will give up this fight, if you don’t feel it too.
And then Moses asks for affirmation for himself alone. He says to God, “You have said, I have singled you out by name and you have indeed gained my favor. Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.” (Exodus 33:12-13)
God, in God’s lowest moment of faith in the Israelites, realizes that those who sinned must be held accountable, and Moses needs reassurance. God says, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.” (Exodus 33:17)
But, God says, I can only go so far. I Can’t Make You Love Me if You Don’t. I will pass before you, you will see my back, but you cannot see my face and live. You have to feel the power and believe in it and have faith. Ultimately nothing I can do can assure you to have faith because my presence will always be ephemeral. But it’s there, and you can believe in it.
Both Moses and God, at their most defeated, their most unsure that this relationship will work, find a proclamation of their own worth that ultimately moves the relationship forward. Moses aligns himself with the people and says “take us together, mistakes and all.” God says, “you are special to me, but you will have to believe in something you will never experience as human.”
I Can’t Make You Love Me, the song, is so universal because it admits the pain of loss and defeat but manages to acknowledge that even in those lowest moments we must affirm our own worth. When we’re feeling worthless, and we all have those moments, this song gives us a reminder that we’re not, and that others can believe in us.
I Can’t Make You Love Me, by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin