Rosh Hashanah and Alex Clare’s Song 'Too Close'

As Rosh Hashana approaches, it's a good idea to get in touch with one's inner self

A Rosh Hashana themed stainedglass window by the artist David Hillman, at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London. (photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)
A Rosh Hashana themed stainedglass window by the artist David Hillman, at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London.
(photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)

It was the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul--the month of coming closer to God in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Tishrei--and my friend stopped me in the street to discuss a four letter word. It was a word that for many years I had been trained to view with disdain. A word that I thought had little to no place in the life of a hasid… but nevertheless, he met me with care in his eyes and compassion in his heart and he spoke to me about this word. This four letter word called s-e-l-f.


This may seem comical but I had trouble digesting what he was saying. He encouraged me to express myself, to discover who “I” am. Now “I” in yiddish is ich… another dirty word so I thought. But as he spoke his words seemed to resonate with me.


In recent years I had placed emphasis on a third word called hitkashrut, connection. That as long as I stayed connected to tzadikim, righteous souls, then I could continue to disseminate and even adapt their teachings. And although my style and voice were present, I viewed myself as secondary to the pieces I was writing.


This led to problems. I started to also view my own creative aspirations with disdain. I thought that cutting the umbilical cord between myself and the teachings I was basing my writings on meant irreversibly severing the ties. But the more I viewed myself as secondary the more I convinced myself that my authorship was also secondary, and the more I began to resent the closeness I felt to those sages and their teachings.


The Month of Self-Discovery


As the conversation with my friend was still ruminating, the next morning I read an article from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh on Elul named, “Elul: The Month of Self-Discovery.” This article spoke openly about the importance of self-discovery, and how this mode of Divine service relates to the month of Elul. The article also spoke about “I” and how to renew our “I” once we reach the essence of our soul.


It was then that I realized something most profound. That in some way, he and I had anticipated these important themes relating to Elul without consciously knowing it.


The conversation came at a time when I was feeling too close to the teachings I was adapting and I began to resent it. Although my friend didn’t know this, his talk of “self” and “I” were immensely encouraging. But this isn’t the end of the story for the next day I read that article. A conversation that once appeared to be based on free flowing thoughts, was firmly rooted in concepts central to the month of Elul. What seemed like a lesson in independent thinking turned into a lesson in subconscious connectivity. And while we are always connected to God and to our teachers, friends and family, at times we feel the need to run away and seek independence. We still love them dearly, but since the connection feels too close, since we are at a momentary loss for how to define ourselves, our “I,” we run.


Therefore the ideal result for this concept we will now call “too close to love you” is to realize that while subconsciously we are always connected, sometimes we need to consciously step back.


Too Close to Love You


After reading the lyrics of Alex Clare’s song “Too Close” we are left with a question: If you really love someone, then why would you send them away?


Now in a marriage there are times when a husband and wife separate physically. These are detailed in the Laws of Family Purity. But the refrain in Alex’s song is “So I’ll be on my way,” not “So we’ll come close again in a few days.” What then do the words “And it feels like I am just too close to love you” really mean?


While I don’t presume to know exactly what Alex was thinking when he composed the song, we can now propose some subconscious possibilities.


First let’s quote some more from the song:


You've given me more than I can return,

Yet there's also much that you deserve.

There's nothing to say, nothing to do.

I've nothing to give,

I must live without you.

You know we're heading separate ways.


The most important words in this section, and the inner idea around which the entire song revolves, are these words “you’ve given me more than I can return.” The indication here is not that the relationship is unhealthy, that this person was not a good influence, etc… Instead the lyrics are saying that I didn’t know how to be myself, to be a giver and not just a receiver, and because of that we need to part ways.


There are times when we need to distance ourselves from people and influences that aren’t healthy and beneficial for our spiritual growth. But then there are times when we are in a relationship of receiving, and while this is good and healthy for a time—like a student that listens attentively to his or her teacher in class—there comes a time when the student needs to go off on their own; when the child needs to grow up in order to become a parent; and when we grow up to discover how to give back some to the goodness that God has given us by placing us in His world to begin with.


The lesson I learned from my friend, however, was that one does not need to be separate to love. That I could consciously embark on my path of self-discovery while recognizing that there are these subconscious connections that always bind us together.


What Alex is saying (at least subconsciously) is that even more agonizing than a life with self is a life without self. That the inability to step back and give, to be too close to love, only leaves to feelings of frustration, resentment or misplaced anger. But instead of speaking of a romantic relationship that shouldn’t have been, more precisely the concept of being “too close to love” relates best to those that we indeed rightfully love… but unless we step away consciously to nurture ourselves, we’ll begin to hate ourselves, them, and everyone around us.


Now on to some more lyrics:


And it feels like I am just too close to love you,

There's nothing I can really say.

I can lie no more, I can hide no more,

Got to be true to myself.

And it feels like I am just too close to love you,

So I'll be on my way.


Before my friend stopped me that day I was frustrated. While I’ve written many articles, I was under the impression that my name was there by default because the articles were submitted from my email. But given the opportunity, I would have gladly exchanged my name for another. The problem is that this led me to hate the very teachings that I had so loved. I hated them because I didn’t see my place in them, and although I still valued them dearly, I also felt the desire to distance myself from them. Only since that talk with my friend, and the article the next morning, did I realize why I was feeling this way and why Alex Clare’s lyrics typify this experience. It’s called growing up. And while we still love our teachers, friends and family, we’ve also “got to be true” to ourselves.


Agewise, the lesson behind “Too Close” is one that likely resonate well with Millennials seeking to discover their place in the world. Don’t run from your loved ones even as you seek to blaze your own path. Don’t think that distancing yourself will leave you feeling more fulfilled and content. A sentiment expressed in these two lines:


I don't want to hurt you but I need to breathe.

                                           At the end of it all, you're still my best friend,


Giving Birth this New Year


This brings us to the conclusion and what the connection is to Rosh Hashanah.


As before we will reference back to the lyrics of the song. But this time, we will focus on correcting the most problematic line.


We might think that “So I'll be on my way” is the most problematic line. But even though it is unclear how this can be said to someone we truly love, we have already explained this in terms of consciousness. Even when consciously we feel the need to separate (or are instructed to do so according to Jewish law), we remain subconsciously connected. So while this line needed some clarification, now that clarification has been given, we were able to learn a great lesson from it.


Instead, the most difficult line to approach is, “But there's something inside that I need to release,” because while the next line indicates that the release is a moral one, “Which way is right, which way is wrong,” the simple reading of the text is that the tension was of a sexual nature. Namely, that a friendship turned romantic, and before it went further, this “too close” speech was delivered. Thus even though this former friend was asked to go, what still needs to be explained is how a moral decision rectified these misplaced sexual impulses.


The example in the Torah for this is the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Joseph was seventeen at the time, so too this song likely resonates well with teenagers. But the story goes that Potiphar’s wife was attempting to seduce Joseph, so he decided to flee because she was “too close”... she was a wicked Egyptian and he darted out of that house as fast as he could.


The difference though is that there was no love here, only seduction. This is why I related this song to truly loving relationships and not with seductresses. Because there is no love there, only seduction.


Our question though is how a moral decision rectifies sexual impulses? The answer comes from knowing that in the merit of standing up to the test of seduction from Potiphar’s wife, Joseph became known as the “revealer of secrets” (tzafnat paneach). [1]


As the line “But there's something inside that I need to release” represents such a central message for the song—the song that helped Alex further his singing career—we would expect to find something within the lyrics that references back to Alex’s life. The first point is that he wrote this song after a friendship started to become romantic. But as explained regarding Joseph, this still leaves us wondering what great climax results from passing the test of adolescence? If “there’s something inside that I need to release,” how then does the moral decision to separate result in a positive release?


The real-world result came about by Divine Providence after Alex had made the firm decision to be observant of Shabbat and Jewish Holidays. Originally, his record label left him as a result of his observance. But as Alex discusses in this video, when he was “down to his last pennies,” Microsoft emailed him with a proposition to use a portion of his “Too Close” song for a series of Internet Explorer advertisements.


There are two great challenges for an artist. The first is to remain dedicated and inspired to come up with new ideas and creative expressions. But once these ideas flow forth, the second challenge is the challenge of public acceptance. Will anyone want to listen to this song, read this article, and so on? [2]


The new year that will begin Wednesday night is 5775 or תשעה, the word “nine” in Hebrew. In a recent class, Rabbi Ginsburgh explained that the nine (תשעה) of this coming year corresponds to the nine months of pregnancy--the “nine” in the “Who Knows One?” song sung at the end of the Passover Seder. 


Thus a sign for the coming year is that it should be a year of “nine months of pregnancy.” To give birth to children for those that are married (and those not yet married, should be blessed to both marry, and give birth this coming year), and those not yet of marriageable age (and those past child bearing age) should merit to “give birth” to new ideas and initiatives.


What is the pure and holy “too close” experience? It is when a pure and holy “too close” experience results in something that benefits the public. When the result of something private enters the public world.


While the marital union is performed modestly and in private, the result is a new baby that the world benefits from seeing and celebrating. So too one’s private spiritual soul-searching goes through its own gestation period. And while it may take time for the public to celebrate the resulting new idea or initiative, the hope and faith of an artist is that eventually the public will recognize this work and benefit from it. Although Microsoft sent Alex the Internet Explorer advertising request email months after “Too Close” was released, it was that email that led millions to later hear about the song. But this was also a beginning as now we have ventured forth a bit further to explain this concept called “too close to love.”


May this coming year be one of giving birth. Both physically to new children and spiritually to new ideas and initiatives… new songs, articles, paintings and other creative expressions.


L’Shana Tovah! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!


    1.According to Kabbalah: One who exhibits the power to pass the test--to stay pure and holy during the test of adolescence--accesses the Crown of Will, the source for the Crown of Foundation (ateret hayesod), which is also called the “skull” (gulgolta). One who merits to become an “explainer of hidden things,” as a result of staying pure and holy during the tests of adolescence, accesses Wisdom of Will, called the “concealed brain” (mocha stima’ah) within will.

    2.This consciousness relates to one who has the desire to shine new light to the world, the level of the Crown of the Reproductive Organ (ateret hayesod) within the sefirah of yesod (foundation).

 Yonatan Gordon has spent most of his past 14 professional years in the world of Jewish publishing. He was the Marketing Manager at Kehot Publication Society (publishing arm of Chabad) for the better part of six years. He is founder of the website Community of Readers.