Thursday, December 22, 2016
From Jacob to Tevye to Today - We Are All Fiddler's On the Roof©
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Vayishlach
A fiddler on the roof.... Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition! (Fiddler on the Roof, act 1, scene 1)
Who in here is not instantly transformed to a different place when you hear this line?
Fiddler on the Roof opened up on Broadway on August 26, 1964 – it’s hard to believe, but Fiddler is 52 years old. American Jews in the 1960’s until today have flocked to this famous play, an adaptation of a story from the famous Yiddish writer, Shalom Aleichem. But it’s not just in America that people flock to Fiddler – the show has been translated into many different languages – including Japanese. In fact, people in Japan wondered how Americans could understand a story that was so Japanese!
I was actually in a production of Fiddler on the Roof – I was Fyedka, the non-Jewish Russian who marries Tevye’s third daughter Chava. When my parents found out, they said, “Hmmm…makes sense, you don’t look Jewish.”
American Jews flocked to Fiddler for a sweet taste of the world of tradition. The irony is that Fiddler on the Roof is not about tradition. Fiddler is about the radical changes that destroyed the world of tradition. In that sense, it really is the story of our origins as modern Jews and the birth of the complicated identities we inhabit. Fiddler is not as much a story of the shtetl as it is a story of the tearing down of the shtetl walls, and the realization that rapid change is approaching.
Everyone of us after all is a Fiddler – balancing ourselves on a roof – trying to keep that balance, of tradition and change.
In this week’s parashah, VaYetzei, we are confronted by a story of what happens when the walls come down, and the family is confronted with a change in tradition.
The story of the rape of Dinah found in Genesis 33.
“Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. 2 Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. 3 Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. 4 So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife. 5 Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. 6 Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him. 7 Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done. 8 And Hamor spoke with them, saying, “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. 9 Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves: 10 You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”
Before this moment, Jacob gets a new name – Israel – someone who struggles with the divine. Now, he faces yet another struggle.
It’s the same struggle that Tevye had with his three daughters.
Tevye has three daughters that represent three ideas. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, whom he arranges a marriage for with an older man, Lazar Wolf, steps into the modern age by choosing her own spouse, a religious Jewish tailor named Muttle. As his daughter says to him, “Papa, times are changing.” His second daughter wants to marry a revolutionary and leave the town. Again, he struggles – but ultimately he agrees. The happiness and love of his daughter forces Tevya to change tradition. But his third daughter, Hava, who intermarries, is a different story. He says to her, a fish and a bird are equally lovely creatures, but where are they going to live? And in the end, it is too much for him.
Some things I cannot, I will not allow – one little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop, where does it stop.
Tevye makes a decision – he rejects his daughter – so what will his ancestor Jacob do in the same situation?
Shechem goes on to tell Jacob:
11 Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. 12 Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”
Still, Jacob does not react – his sons do – they come up with a compromise, circumcise your men, and you can join us together. But the reason they do this is so they are vulnerable – they attack Shechem and Hamor, and destroy them.
Finally, Jacob speaks – he condemns his sons, but we don’t know what he really thinks because he does not speak.
Why were Jacob’s sons so sure of what they had to do and he wasn’t?
At this moment, Jacob was like a Fiddler on the Roof – trying to keep his balance like Tevye. Right before this episode, we read the story of the unification of Jacob and Esau. Before they reunite, Jacob wrestles with an angel and gets a new name – Israel – for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed. This is what Jacob does, he struggles.
Tradition – Change – two forces that oppose each other – and yet, this is what life is all about.
In Anita Diamont’s book, the Red Tent, she imagines Dinah not as a victim of rape, but as a Juliet like character who loves the prince of Shechem, her Romeo. It is a story of a forbidden relationship for the time – but a relationship that their families were trying to navigate.
This is more the world we live in – a world of freedom, and yet, the other side to that coin is responsibility – an imposed restriction.
We are all Jacob, we are all Tevye – we are all fiddlers on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck – trying to keep that balance.
What would Tevye do today if Hava came to him to tell him that she was going to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish? What would Jacob say if he could finally speak to Dinah? This is our challenge – to keep tradition, and yet, to bend enough to allow us to live in an open and glorious world.
We know how Tevye’s story ends. They are kicked out of Anatevka – Tevye and his family go to New York, Lazer Wolf, whom he finally makes up with moves to Chicago – and they lovingly say – we are going to be neighbors.
But before Tevye leaves, he sees his daughter Hava one last time – the daughter whom he said Kaddish for – and he acknowledges her – and in a way, he accepts her.
We are all Jacob, we are all Tevye – just Fiddlers on the Roof, trying to keep our balance – this has always been our challenge, but it is also our opportunity.
Parashat Va-yetzei – The Purpose of Our Lives©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Have you ever asked yourself, what's the purpose of my life?
There's a famous story of Adam HaRishon, the very first human, who wondered this same thing. It actually came out of a little know creation story.
The first animal that God created was the dog and said to the dog: 'Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years.' The dog said: 'That's a long time to be barking. How about only ten years and I'll give you back the other ten?'
So God agreed.
Then God created the monkey and said: 'Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I'll give you a twenty-year life span.' The monkey said: 'Monkey tricks for twenty years? That's a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the Dog did?'
And God agreed.
Then God created the cow and said: 'You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer's family. For this, I will give you a life span of sixty years.' The cow said: 'That's kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years. How about twenty and I'll give back the other forty?'
And God agreed again.
Finally, God created man and said: 'Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I'll give you twenty years.' But man said: 'Only twenty years? Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty, okay?'
'Okay,' said God, 'You asked for it.'
So that is why for our first twenty years we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves.
For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family.
For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren.
And for the last ten years we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone.
The purpose of life has now been explained to you.
Perhaps the greatest question each one of us has is, what's the purpose of my life? If you came here today to get the answer to that question for you, I'm sorry, I don't have it, but I do have another proposition – the answer to the purpose of OUR lives, the lives of people who are part of Jewish spiritual communities - synagogues – and I learned it from our father Jacob in this week's parashah.
First, I need to give you a little background. Our parashah begins with Jacob, a young man probably as old as our bnai mitzvah, Ryan and Sydney. Jacob had left home for the first time, fleeing from his brother Esau. He was alone on the road to relatives in another land, people he did not know and had never met. He must surely have been filled with anxiety as his life was taking a new turn.
As he travelled, he experienced nightfall. He could not continue in the dark; he was tired; it was time for sleep. “And he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head.” We would have thought that Jacob had brought a back pack of clothing with him, since he knew he would be away from home for an extended time. Why didn’t he rest his head on his back pack? That would have been far more comfortable than resting his head on a stone.
Why a rock?
Perhaps this is a symbolic way of saying: Jacob was truly in a hard, difficult place. He had come against a rock, not knowing how to get past this dark, frightening episode in his life.
It's not a unique story. In fact, all of us have been in Jacob's shoes - When faced with crisis and moments of significant transition, everyone might experience the feeling that the sun has set, that darkness pervades, that one’s head is pressed against a rock. There are moments when one may feel lost and abandoned. How will he/she get past this crisis? What does the future have in store?
What is the purpose of my life?
And just as Jacob is in his darkest time...he dreams and the lights turn on. He sees in front of him angels going up and down a ladder...and God is standing besides Jacob and he says to him:
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. 14 Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15 Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Remember...I am with you...I will not leave you....you are not alone. If I were in Jacob's shoes, it is these words that would help me the most. But it's not only God who accompanies Jacob.
Jacob sees angels, going up and down a ladder. The question Rashi asks is, why would angels be going up and down, shouldn't it be the opposite? Shouldn't they be going down – don't angels live in heaven? Rashi goes on to explain that there were angels who escorted Jacob in the land of Israel, and then other angels take over after them, which is why they went up.
The line between angel and man is blurred in the book of Genesis. When Abraham is in his tent, he is approached by three men – he sees them as men, but later on they turn out to be be Mal'achim – the term in angel – but it also means messengers. Mal'achei Elohim – Messengers of God. In other words, perhaps we, you and me, have the potential to be the God and accompany lost souls in the darkness of their lives.
Last week, I attended the bar mitzvah ceremony of my cousin's son Matthew. I have never seen a child love life more than Matthew. He is always smiling, always hugging and loving others. He had been looking forward to the day of his bar mitzvah ceremony for his whole life. Every Shabbat for the last six months, he asked the rabbi, can I wear my talit? The rabbi said, not yet – you have to wait until your day.
Matthew led part of the bar mitzvah service, and his family, his cousins, including me, led many of the other parts. What is unique about Matthew is that none of us thought he would get to this moment. He was born with a condition where parts of his brain were fused together. He had brain surgeries before he was three years old, and the doctors said he may never speak. He would often have seizures. But he's a strong kid – he persevered. Thankfully, Matthew was never in a dark place – but his family was. You have visions for your children when they are born – and once the reality set in – those pictures became dark – they disappear. That is when the angels entered their lives – multiple therapists, teachers from all parts of his life and special needs programs, family, and finally, a synagogue community including a bnai mitzvah tutor, a religious school, and a rabbi that accomapnied Matthew on his journey and enveloped their family with love, and offered them a place, a Makom, for Matthew to shine and share his light with others.
During our dark moments in life, when our heads are resting on hard rocks and we are alone, God calls out to us: Remember...I am with you...I will not leave you....you are not alone. But it is hard to hear God sometimes, to truly believe it.
But when we see the angels who surround us, and accompany us on our journeys, we realize what Jacob realized:
מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹ-הִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם׃
“Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
I don't know what your purpose is – but I know what our purpose is – to be those messengers of God who remind people in their dark times –
Remember...I am with you...I will not leave you....you are not alone.
That is one of the reasons why THIS PLACE, THIS MAKOM exists – to create a space for angels to accompany for those in the dark, for those whose head rest on rocks. Sometimes, we are Jacob, sometimes we are the angels – but at all times, this is our purpose. And when we reach our milestones, we realize that even if we are alone at that moment, we know that the angels in our lives helped get us to this place, this makom.
And so, if you would like to begin a new journey in your life, and you aren't on this path yet, I humbly ask that you consider finding your purpose here, with us – to join us as we journey together on a path to holiness as part of Shaarei Kodesh. And if you are a part of Shaarei Kodesh, but haven't felt that you've really started your journey, let's begin today, together.
May it be God's will that we live up to our potential – to be angels in this world for others, and to warm ourselves from the light of the people whom we set on their paths.