Tevya and Tisha B’Av

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/13

I would like to ask you to think with me for a moment about one of the most beloved scenes in the history of musicals, in the most beloved Jewish musical of all time.  The musical itself?  It must be Fiddler on the Roof.  And the scene?  So many great ones, but arguably the greatest of the great is the conversation that Tevya the milk man has with God just before he begins to sing ‘If I Were a Rich Man.”  In that dialogue an exhausted and almost defeated Tevya walks his horse back to the family home at the end of what we would call in today’s parlance a ‘bad day.’  The horse has gone lame, and Tevya begins to talk to God.  He complains a bit – kvetching would be the technical term.  “Dear God – was that necessary?  It is enough you pick on me.  What have you got against my horse?   Sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself lets see, what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya?  I am not really complaining – with your help, God, I am starving to death.  So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.  If I were a rich man”…and you know the rest.

Of course Tevya in this scene, and perhaps throughout the entire musical, is at least on one level a metaphor for the Jewish people.  Downtrodden, exhausted, in dire straights, facing a series of seemingly unending challenges, persecuted by the Cossacks – that is Tevya’s story – and that is also the story of the Jews.  And Tevya has other qualities that also represent the Jewish people –  he has a Jewish sense of humor, a strength of will and determination, a dedication to family, and despite Tevya’s ongoing misgivings about God, he has a kind of unbreakable faith in God’s goodness and God’s presence.  In a sense God is Tevya’s constant companion in Fiddler.  Despite his hardships, his troubles and tzuris – Tevya remains a believer.

You may remember that last summer there was a a new book by Harper Lee published.  It was hard to miss it – it was covered by every major news agency, talked about on TV and radio, blogged about on the internet.  Anyone remember the name of the book?  Go Set a Watchman.  There was so much fanfare about it because Lee had published only one other book in her life – which is?  To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the end it turned out that Go Set a Watchman wasn’t actually a new book.  Instead it was a first draft of what would later become the masterpiece that we are all know so well.  What really caught people’s attention about the new book was that it told an alternate story.  Scout – the young protagonist in Mockingbird – is an adult in Go Set a Watchman.  She lives in New York, not in a small southern town.  But most significantly, the beloved character Atticus Finch, so memorably played in the movie version by Gregory Peck, who in To Kill a Mockingbird is a courageous champion of civil rights, is portrayed in the new book as a bitter racist.

This made people crazy.  You were taking a beloved story, beloved characters, and changing them – and not for the better.  And probably even more difficult for people, you were taking a symbol – Atticus Finch, a character who stood for wisdom, goodness, fairness, and equality – and you were destroying it.  The character was beloved.  People felt they knew that character, felt a certain ownership of him.  And the new book had in a way taken Atticus away from them.

I don’t want to take away your Tevya.  And there is no new version of Fiddler that will begin playing on Broadway soon.  But I would like to take a moment or two this morning to imagine an alternate version of the story.  On the surface this Anatevka looks the same as the original.  Poor Jews living in the shetyl, struggling to get by and to maintain their dignity and their way of life.  But under the surface things are different.  Because in our version of Fiddler the beloved character of Tevya has slowly, over the years, lost his faith in God.  The hardships of life have worn him down.  He realizes as hard has he has worked he has very little to show for it.  He is disappointed in his children, and he can’t understand why God hasn’t rewarded him for living his life as a faithful Jew.  So he decides to leave that life behind.  He violates the Sabbath without a second thought.  He doesn’t go to shul, doesn’t even worry about keeping kosher, doesn’t wear his tzitzit.  Perhaps he shaves his beard, and does his best to blend in with the gentiles in the village.

He would have every right to do it, to leave behind his faith.  After all, as we see in that famous dialogue with God I referred to a few minutes ago, God hasn’t done Tevya any favors.  And Tevya knows it.  He acknowledges it, he talks to God about it, reminds God of it.  But God never responds.  The truth is, it isn’t a dialogue with God that Tevya has.  It is a monologue.  He speaks, and whether God hears or doesn’t hear we don’t know.  But we do know that God doesn’t answer.

But in the end the real Tevya – the one we know and love – doesn’t seem to care.  His faith remains unwavering, despite the difficulties of his life, and it is precisely that sense of resilience and enduring faith that marks Tevya, that makes him who he is.  That is why we love him, that is why the character has been one of the most enduring characters in all of theater.  If you took that away from Tevya, if you changed his character, we wouldn’t go to see the show, we wouldn’t have his songs humming around in the backs of our minds, we wouldn’t all know his name.

In a sense it is the same way of the Jewish people.  Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the saddest and most difficult day of the Jewish year.  It is a commemoration of the great tragedies of  Jewish history, most prominently remembering the destruction of the two great Temples in ancient Jerusalem.  On this day 1,946 years ago the second Temple was burned to the ground.  The Jews that were still alive were exiled, sent to Babylonia, their lives torn apart, families destroyed, homes and livelihoods lost.  They felt abandoned by God, they wondered whether the ancient covenant that existed between God and Israel, established so long ago by Moses, was still valid.  If there was any point in Jewish history when the Jews might have turned their backs on God, might have walked away, might have permanently lost their faith, that was the moment.  They would have had every right to leave their faith behind.

But they did not.  Instead, they turned their eyes to the heavens and they called out to God.  In a way that wonderful scene in Fiddler when Tevya turns his eyes to the sky and says ‘dear God, was that necessary?’ is a continuation of that moment.  It is a rhetorical question, of course.  It was not necessary.  But it is also a statement – God, I don’t understand, but still I look for You, still I call out to You, still I wait for You.  Despite what has happened I will not turn my back on You.  Instead, as it says in the psalms, אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי – I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?  And the next line of the psalm – עזרי מעם ה׳ עשה שמים וארץ – my help comes from God, who has made the heavens and the earth.

Tisha B’Av is about that moment.  Yes, it is a commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.  But even more so it is a celebration – a celebration of Jewish faith and resilience, of the strength of the Jewish spirit and the unending Jewish search for God.  I hope you’ll all join us tonight for Tisha B’Av services as we continue that search together.

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2 Comments

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, books, holidays, Jewish festivals, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Tevya and Tisha B’Av

  1. Linda Scheinberg

    Hi Stephen,
    Wonderfully helpful sermon! Shep & saw the recent fine production of ‘Fiddler’ in New York a couple of months ago, so memories of the show are enhanced by your insights. Just want to mention that Harper Lee was my neighbor for a brief time in New York in the mid 60’s.
    Todah rabah
    Linda Scheinberg

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