The BEST: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”

Moshe Kurtz Tradition Online | February 17, 2022

Summary: In the year before his death, singer-songwriter Johnny Cash recorded a groundbreaking cover of Trent Reznor’s songHurt.” Both the music and video are exceedingly sobering and poignant. The Independent describes it as “a heart-wrenching music video, that spoke about the transience [and] the gracelessness of death.” This foreboding work of art vividly captures the existential frailty of old age and the existential pain of mortality that humankind is condemned to experience. 

Why this is The BEST: Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” is a surefire way to achieve a “U-Netaneh Tokef experience” – with all the potency and profound melancholy it evokes. The original Nine Inch Nails version was about a young man struggling with drug addiction. Here, a decrepit, elderly man who knows death draws near laments his powerlessness to change that the end of all things. Cash expresses despair that all relationships ultimately end in one party suffering at the loss of the other:

“What have I become? / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away / In the end
And you could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt”

To a certain degree, “Hurt” is even more haunting than songs like “Tears in Heaven,” in which Eric Clapton mourns the tragic loss of his child. Tragedies happen to some people, but the march of time which culminates in death is inescapable even for the most fortunate. (See also “Yesterday” by The Beatles, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, “As Tears Go By” by the Rolling Stones, and, of course, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas.) Under the best of circumstances, children bury their parents; one spouse ultimately buries the other. Indeed, that imagery is sensed during several shots in the music video in which Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, gazes despondently at him from the balcony with a profound look of concern emblazoned on her visage – knowing that their time together is near an end. 

The song captures an idea also communicated by Rabbi Norman Lamm, in his eulogy for Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, homiletically expanding on Eruvin 13b: “When you look into the human condition, when you plumb the depths of human misery, and compare it to the heights of human joy and happiness, there is more misery than there is happiness. And therefore noach l’adam shelo nivra [it might have been better for man not to be created].” True, there is pleasure and joy in life. But for every wedding there are two funerals.

Cash was a man of faith, and both the music and accompanying video for “Hurt” deliberately integrated religious imagery. What redeems this song from falling into pure nihilism is the implied belief in a God who grants eternal life. Even as this man senses that he is about to pass from this world, he knows there remains another life waiting for him on the other side. While Cash was Christian, and thus made reference to the “crown of thorns” and other crucifixion imagery, he used it to point to a notion that resonates deeply with our Jewish tradition: Even the most intense suffering is only finite and there lies an eternal reward waiting on the other side. 

Rabbinic tradition is keenly aware of the ephemeral and fleeting nature of human life and places a strong emphasis on what lies beyond our here-and-now. Avot (4:17) illustrates: “Rabbi Jacob said: this world is like an antechamber before the world to come; prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banqueting-hall.” Similarly, the Talmud relates: “One who exerts on the eve of Shabbat will [have what to] eat on Shabbat, but one who did not exert on the eve of Shabbat, from where will he eat on Shabbat?” (Avoda Zara 3a).

The notion of this world (olam ha-zeh) serving as a mean to life eternal (olam ha-ba) is a cornerstone of Rabbinic theology throughout the ages: From the extensive Aggadic passages in Tractate Sanhedrin (Perek Helek), to Ramban’s Sha’ar HaGemul, and in more recent times, the aptly named Gesher HaHayyim (The Bridge of Life) by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky. 

Regardless of the promise of a life waiting on the other side, the pain of bereavement is real and sometimes overpowering. One can know that Rabbinic Judaism unequivocally believes in the immortality of the soul, but it is something else to fully internalize it into one’s psyche. Johnny Cash’s struggle to balance his faith commitments with his despondent emotional state is what makes this work of art both poignant and relatable for all people of faith. It is truly humanizing to see an unabashedly religious musician like Johnny Cash candidly struggle with his life’s final chapter. 

Moshe Kurtz serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


1 Comment

  1. Forwarded to many friends with these comments:
    1. This should indicate to my Secular (and Reform Jewish) friends that Orthodox Jews can relate positively to the General Culture, and particularly to the North American Culture.
    2. It helps us to understand the disagreement between the World Outlook of most religious people and Secular people.
    3. It is interesting that Rabbi Norman Lamm, whose sad view of life on the Planet is mentioned, and who was associated with Manhattan’s Jewish Center Congregation, chose often to pray weekdays at Shearith Israel, and what attracted me first to S. I. was its MUSIC. Music ca, indeed, express Sadness (and act as a relief valve), but it can also Express Joy.. Music makes my life joyful, despite concern over The Condition of the World and the inclusion or even emphasis on hate in belief systems that pose as genuine religion.
    4. Music is badly neglected in the pages of Tradition and the thoughts of its writers and Editors
    5. I also believe that Heaven-on-Earth will come, that bodily resurrection through duplication will come, and that Humankind will explore and populate planets of distant stars.
    Dave Klepper, student, Jerusalem Yeshivat Beit Orot, Life Member, American Legion, Co-Author, Worship Space Acoustics, J. Ross 2010

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