Getting Better is one of my favorite Beatles songs. First, Paul McCartney’s voice on this recording is perfectly captured. Second, the harmonies with John Lennon are spot on. Third, the instrumentation is so clever; between Paul’s bass line and the tamboura that George Harrison plays about half way through the song, is captivating. Fourth, the quality of the recording is exceptional: the harmonies, in particular, stand out. It’s worth getting headphones to listen to this song. But there is something else; it’s the message of the tune.
Paul started writing the song and famously played the chorus for John. He sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/A little better all the time.” To which John added in his classically cheeky, subversive, cynical style, “It can’t get no worse.” And so the song was created, co-written by Paul and John, yin and yang personified. The song, deceptively simple, exemplifies the duality in our lives and times. Or as Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
We can all so absolutely relate to those opening words from A Tale of Two Cities, a book published in 1859 about the French Revolution, which transpired in 1789. But this then begs the question: Is our deep familiarity with this yin/yang as described by Dickens or later sung about by Lennon/McCartney, pathetic or encouraging? Or both?
Let’s be frank: sometimes it’s hard to look at the general situation of our planet and the people and animals on it, and not feel the panicky desire to find the nearest exit. It’s all so overwhelming; “can’t get no worse…” We can feel the cold wind blowing from the abyss, the certainty of our mortality. We see and hear so many terrible things. We witness suffering as well as experiencing our own losses and traumas. And yet there is a force that drives us forward. As Jews, that cosmic, Divine force has made all of the difference. “The Jews’ assigned task within humanity has been, despite everything, to endure and abide in perfect faith and trust: to hope. That is what it has meant to be Israel.”
Rabbis Emil Hirsch and Joseph Jacobs sum it up: “For all its realism, Judaism never advised passive resignation, or the abandonment of and withdrawal from the world. It rejects the theory that the root of life is evil, or that humanity and life and the world are corrupt as a consequence of original sin. Its optimism is apparent in its faith in the slow but certain uplifting of humankind, in the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice, and in the certain coming of a Messianic age.” Or, as Lennon/McCartney sang, “I have to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time.”
There is a great Hasidic aphorism attributed to Reb Simcha Bunim that stipulates, “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: “I am a speck of dust,” and on the other : “The world was created for me.”” Both are true and finding a balance point helps us stay sane. The struggle between these dual truths is our struggle to find meaning every day. Every day we ask, why bother? And the answer is, why not? It can’t get no worse. And the answer, according to Bob Marley, is, “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.” These days I feel pushed up against the wall as I survey my world. The despair, the divisions growing more pronounced, the hatred and the bigotry louder and more vitriolic than ever. It can’t get no worse. But spring is coming and the holiday celebrating our redemption will be here soon. And who can scoff at the promise of springtime and a bowl of matzah ball soup? You see? Yes, I admit it’s getting better all the time.