HomeAPRIL 2024Toby Keith Inspired Me

Toby Keith Inspired Me

How great music can lead the way.

I was thinking a great deal about the nature of “Celebrity” recently as I read of the passing of Toby Keith at his comparatively young age of 62 of stomach cancer.
    Surprisingly, he turned out to inspire me, touching my soul with some of his music. After 9/11, I needed to hear him sing about “The American Way” and how we would hit back hard “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” I knew then, and know now, that our America now paradoxically does not fight “The American Way.” We fight like France and Italy, unable to win, begging others to join us even when we are dealing with medieval rag-tag Houthis in Yemen, or changing sides midway through wars as we did in Vietnam and again with Taiwan and now partly with Israel. We are not the America of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Truman. Or of  Mount Rushmore.
    It was important for me to hear real anger after 9/11. Toby Keith provided it. Daryl Worley provided it after 9/11 in “Have You Forgotten?” It is like the anger that resonates and comes now from Jason Aldean in “Try That in a Small Town.” It is the anger amid the craziness of the late 1960s that was expressed so powerfully by Merle Haggard in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and, especially, in “Okie from Muskogee.”
    From around the age of 10, I sensed I was called to be a rabbi. I also am passionate about writing and teaching. I do not have the slightest interest in making money or being rich. One of my siblings once said to me “Dov, we went out the other day for dinner with a couple who are members of your former shul, and the husband told us ‘The problem with your brother is that he does not know how to make money.’” It was said behind my back at that restaurant, meant as an insult. My beloved wife of twenty years until cancer took her to Paradise, Ellen of blessed memory, had the same reaction I did: we took it as a compliment. I don’t know how to make money. Therefore, necessarily, I have to leave that to G-d. I do my part to serve Him, and miracles flow.
    When a person is in grief over a death or a personal tragedy, or pursuing a conversion to Judaism, or planning his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah and arranging for the rabbi to play a meaningful role in that child’s moral and spiritual development, is the yardstick whether the rabbi is proficient at “making money”? If that’s what people want, OK. The customer is always right.
    I guess I serve a different clientele. And, despite ostensibly being a beggar from Jerusalem, somehow I put four kids through twelve years of yeshiva private school tuition, and those same darlings through four private undergraduate college educations without any of them having to pay more than de minimis tuition or take out loans. Thank you, Santa Claus.
    So I am copacetic to leave to Tevye any dreams about being rich. My goal: to have enough. To serve G-d, to serve a congregation and others in the greater American and Israel community who seek my guidance and to study with me, and to publish an article every month in Orange County Jewish Life. That is ample. In a world of technology, what with teaching and counseling via Zoom, posting Torah and other Judaism and Israel classes on YouTube, and publishing articles, a rabbi can serve.
    In my earlier adult years, external forces indeed restrained my dreams and coerced me temporarily to pursue a different career path, that of lawyering. Although I was very successful in that career, it never resonated for me.  One of my secret weapons for survival during those years was listening to Toby Keith’s 1993 country breakout hit, “I Should Have Been a Cowboy.”  I know Toby did not mean it quite the way I preferred to hear it. But I would be sitting in the law library at Jones Day at 3:00 in the wee hours of the morning, preparing for a deposition or drafting a legal memorandum due by 9 a.m., and I would pause to think “I don’t want to be here. I was a practicing rabbi for ten years. It is my calling. I have got to get back to that, somehow.” Soon, I would start singing softly to myself, with my own set of lyrics, “I Shoulda Bin a Rabboy (Rabbi).” And unlike the singer, whose lyrics were wistful but reflective of a dreamer who never really would take the steps needed to make that transition to a cattle drive, I was determined not just to pine away but indeed to be “like Gene and Roy” and to reclaim my destiny.
    I always wanted to meet Toby Keith for a “New York minute” to say thanks for how those songs touched my life. I feel the same about the early Garth Brooks and his “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” “The River,” “The Dance,” “Unanswered Prayers,” and “The Change.” Certain songs are so poetic and lyrical but also so insightful. They can inspire and touch lives, much as do some songs now coming out of Israel like those of Ishai Ribo (“Ani Shayakh La’am” and “The Avodah”), Dubi Zeltzer’s “Eretz Tzvi,” and Eyal Golan’s “Am Yisrael Chai.” But we shall leave that early Garth for another day.
     When artists pass, a part of us dies with them. We always will have their works, but we will never know how much more might have been composed and produced. Instead, we are left to wonder, as George Jones did, “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?
  To receive Rav Fischer’s Weekly Extensive Torah Commentaries or to attend any or all of Rav Fischer’s weekly 60-minute live Zoom classes on the Weekly Torah Portion, the Biblical Prophets, the Mishnah, Rambam Mishneh Torah, or Advanced Judaic Texts, send an email to:shulstuff@yioc.org.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, Vice President of Coalition for Jewish Values, and senior contributing editor at The American Spectator. To join any of his online classes, email him at rabbi@yioc.org.


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