Editor’s Note: Rabbinic Intern Lily Lucey originally gave this sermon during the outdoor service on Kol Nidre 5782 (Sept 2021).
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!
Tevye captures something that is at the essence of Judaism and that is intensely heightened throughout our High Holiday liturgy: that we are always acknowledging the fragility of life, while continuing to find a way to live it, carrying with us the suffering not just of this moment but of all of our people before us and all of the generations to come.
We may be far from Anatevka, but does anyone else relate to this feeling of standing precariously on a roof, just barely trying to keep our balance while we each scrape out our own simple tune? We have been navigating pandemic life for a year and a half and we are certainly no strangers to the very real fears that arise from the tangible fragility of life and death. Too many of us, myself included, have been touched over the last year and a half by the deaths of people we love.We are grieving individually and collectively. Writer Laura Tierney explains that we don’t “move on” from grief; we move forward. “A grieving person,” she says, “is going to laugh again and smile again. They’re going to move forward. But that doesn’t mean that they’ve moved on.”
Judaism certainly does not run away from grief. We are mourners. Individually, our mourning practices allow us to sit with our grief and support one another through it. Communally, the annual cycle of our calendar contains existential opportunities for communal grief and communal comfort.
Human beings are considered (by human beings, of course) to be highly intelligent creatures. But while we can often create meaning and growth out of our suffering, we do not have the ability to really understand why pain and suffering exists, or the power to prevent it from happening. There are measures to be taken that can lessen our risks. Our High Holiday liturgy acknowledges that our actions can lessen the decree. While this resonates for some of us as it is, for some of our modern theological sensitivities we may feel more comfortable interpreting “lessening the decree” less as Divine intervention as a reward for good behavior and more in practical cause-and-effect terms; for example, we can wear masks to lessen the risk of Covid. Doing t’shuvah, making reparations for our actions, gives us the potential to have healthier relationships. But as a people with immensely painful communal trauma in our history and antisemitism ever-present, Jews rarely, if ever, live life without at least a little bit of fear. There is a communal sense of fragility that we carry with us everywhere. So as important as preventative measures are, there is still a randomness that is beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding.
What DO we have control over?
One, we can choose to marvel at the wonders of life. We sing on Shabbat, “mah gadlu ma-asecha Yah, m’od amku mach’sh’votecha.” We only have to look to the world around us, to our friendships, relationships, the wonders of the world that are beyond our comprehension. We can be amazed by what we see, curious about it, choose to see things as if through a child’s eyes, as we are encouraged by the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, ““Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” We don’t have to look far for inspiration– our siddurim are full of the wonders of nature and the marvels of the human body. What if we took it upon ourselves to notice one thing each day with new eyes, with the wonder of a child, as if seeing it for the first time? What if we wake up singing, “morning has broken/like the first morning/blackbird has spoken like the first bird.”
Second, we can rely on ritual. Often, especially when we are grieving, this just means going through the motions until anything makes sense again. We don’t have to intellectualize it every single time. Hearing familiar melodies at the High Holidays or at daily or Shabbat services can bring a wave of comfort, eating certain foods associated with a holiday, new or old family rituals, kissing our tzitzit during Sh’ma, the list goes on… Repetition instills ritual in our bones. Sometimes we don’t even realize the power that familiar ritual has over us– but we see it in the way a dying loved one will sing along with us to the words of a familiar prayer or Hebrew song, even if they haven’t heard it in decades. Tradition may be a motivator to keep going, as Tevye points out, but ritual can be a source of comfort. A source of return.
Third, we can do better. We can return to the selves we set out to be by doing authentic t’shuvah, acknowledging our missteps as individuals and as a society. Empathizing better, listening, understanding the hurt that we’ve inflicted on one another with and without realizing it.
And most of all, we can continue living, carrying on not despite our suffering but because of it. Yom Kippur is the day we tap into our darkest places and arise again to life with hope. “The great shofar will be sounded, and the still small voice will be heard.” Yes, we will awaken to life, to be reminded to carry on, and this awakening will attune us to the quiet voice that whispers, “here’s what really matters.”
We don’t move on from grief; we move forward. By living and trying to do better, we are hope embodied. We keep trying to find our footing as fiddlers on the roof, despite the changing world around us. We were graced by the familiar Kol Nidre melody on violin when we began our service tonight. A fiddler in a tent, sounds crazy, no? Of course it does, and a couple of years ago we never would have pictured ourselves in a tent, wearing masks, singing Kol Nidre in a parking lot. We’ve had to retool our services, create new ways to be together as a community, navigate an ever-changing reality while finding ways to incorporate the things we loved about the world we knew. We are Tevye, finding a way to hold thousands of years of history in our hearts while adapting to newness, grieving for the life we knew, grieving our vision of what the last year and a half was supposed to look like, and grieving for the ones who should still be here with us. Certain times in our communal lives, in our history, from pogroms to pandemics, are more blatantly frightening and fragile than others, but life is always fragile, and THAT is what we never forget. Living joyously never has to mean that we’re ignoring the pain or brushing it under the rug. When we choose to wonder, when we choose to continue our rituals, when we choose to do better than before, and when we choose life, it’s not because we haven’t suffered. We must sit with each other and sit quietly with ourselves in our grief. We must acknowledge the grief in ourselves and in others. While we may not have an explanation for the suffering, we do have a reason to recall the suffering, so that we can remember to do better for ourselves and others.
We awaken to the great shofar, because the new day and time calls us to keep going. Even while we are sad and scared. We are mourners. We remember trauma and we don’t invalidate it by moving on too quickly. We keep it close to our hearts as a reminder.
A Mourning Dove’s Coup
by William Cleary
If you hear me in the morning and think: “There’s the Morning Dove!”
You’ve erred: That’s not the spelling of my name.
Instead my call is mournful, since I mourn from dawn to dusk
This world’s disgrace, heartache, despair and shame.
But that’s my coup! my “brilliantly accomplished stratagem”:
That out of this dark world a song can start,
My mourning coo can soften all the edges of despair,
And turn the night to morning in your heart.
A Mourning Dove I be, small, grayish-brown with spotted tail,
A tiny dash of pink beneath my chin,
And though I mourn, I coo a song of courage through the pain,
To bravely never-mind what might have been.
Good God, beneath the mystery of sorrow and despair,
We also hear a clear creative call.
So doves accept the role of making music out of pain,
Yet adding tones of hope beneath it all.
G’mar chatimah tovah.