This is the text of the sermon I delivered on the morning of the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Are You Christian? Get Your Free Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet.
The most popular musical in the country when I was in college was Rent. Perhaps you saw it. It was not as edgy as, say, the Book of Mormon, but it had its moments.
One of its most popular songs was called “Another Day.” It is a paean to the idea of carpe diem, seize the day. You know the idea. Today is the only day we have. Make the most of it.
Such advice usually comes along with the encouragement to live without any regrets. One verse in the song says,
There’s only us
There’s only this
Or life is yours to miss
“Forget regret?” Is that really possible? Can we really live—make choices, form relationships, do important work—and have no regrets? To explore this question, let us turn to the biblical story we just read.
On Wednesday night and Thursday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “Head of the Year.”
What distinguishes Rosh Hashanah from every other holiday is the sounding of ancient ram’s horn, known as a shofar. It makes a scratchy, plaintive primitive sound. To hear it is the primary purpose of this day.
Even people can’t make it to synagogue try to hear the sound of the shofar. Rabbis have been known to visit hospitals and sound the shofar in patients’ rooms.
Is the Alarm Clock Loud Enough?
Why? What’s so important about the shofar? Why must we hear it? The most insightful answer I’ve heard was given by Rabbi Harold Kushner. While the words of this prayerbook are addressed to God, he noted, the sounds of the Shofar are addressed to us.
“It’s a wake up call, an alarm clock; as if God were saying to us, ‘Don’t just plead with me for a year of life. I’m giving you life; what are you doing with it?'”
In other words, the shofar is an alarm clock for our lives. It pierces through our routines and habits. It awakens us from the slumber of everyday living. It challenges us to think, to question, to wake up! What are we doing with the challenges and opportunities life puts before us? What meanings are we making out of the experiences we face?
Answering the questions God is asking
Yet, the shofar does not just present these questions. It helps us answer them. The most frequent sound—known in Hebrew as tekiah—summons us to human connection and community. The Torah itself tells us that the original function of the tekiah sound was to assemble the people.
Summer camps often have a bell that rings when it’s time to gather for a meal or ceremony. The tekiah sound does the same thing: it commands us to gather, to come together, so that we can live more fully.
We need that reminder. In a society that makes us easy to be alone–to entertain ourselves on the computer or with our iPhones–we can forget the richness that comes with living with and for others. Life gains meaning when we share it. Martin Buber, the great theologian of the twentieth century, made this message his life’s work.
When Buber was asked where God was found, he did not say in heaven. He did not even say God is everywhere. He said “God lives in relationships.” May your new year be fulfilled with new and deepening relationships–with God and with one another.
As I child I could not sit through movies or meals. Sitting through a musical was out of the question.
Yet, when I was seven, my parents decided to take me to see Fiddler on the Roof. Looking back now as parent of a seven-year-old, I would not have been so bold.
Since that first experience, I have been I love with this story. I’ve seen the musical four times and the movie at least half a dozen. It’s one of my favorite resources for classes and sermons on Jewish tradition and history.
And I am not alone.
50 years after it first opened on Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof remains popular. It is even beloved in Japan, where very few Jews live.
What explains this universal appeal? What makes a musical about a small Jewish village in Russia in the 1890s speak to millions of people around the world in the 21st century?
1. It’s a story about change and loss: Fiddler on the Roof illustrates the slow collapse of a traditional way of life.
The end of the nineteenth century, much like our own times, was on of fundamental change. The small villages of Europe began to lose their residents to the lure of the bigger cities and the golden shores of America.
Modern ideas began to upend the traditional beliefs and practices. Trade and military service brought people into contact with those they never would have encountered a generation ago.
Change always creates a feeling of loss. No matter how old we are or where we live, we experience change. We can relate to what happened in the Jewish village of Fiddler, even though we never lived there.
2. It’s a story about family bonds: We can all relate to generational conflict. It is as old as humanity. It is even more pronounced in times of great change.
We know people whose marriage defied their parents wishes. We know people who became a teacher when their parents may have hoped for a doctor. Perhaps we are those people.
We struggle to maintain family bonds amidst such change. We feel the father’s pain as his daughters move away. We feel their mixture of excitement and fear as they leave their hometown.
3. It’s a story about human yearnings: Amongst Fiddler’s most treasured songs is If I Were a Rich Man. Dancing around his modest cottage, Tevya imagines the huge house, the adoring friends, and endless privileges he would have.
He pictures the leisure time, the special seat in the synagogue and the different clothes he and wife would enjoy.
Who among us has not dreamed of a different life, at least for a moment? Who among us has not walked through first-class cabin on a plane—or walked by a lavish fancy restaurant—and not thought it might be nice to sit or dine there?
Like Tevya, our yearnings are not simply financial. We yearn for a return to simpler times. We yearn for meaningful relationships. We yearn for a more perfect world.
At its core, yearnings represent the sacred impulse within us. The world as it is is not yet the world as it should be. As long as this is so, Fiddler on the Roof will continue to touch our hearts and souls.
I sat with the two children of a mother who had just passed away. They were recounting her life for me in preparation for the funeral.
As we spoke, the mother’s long-time caretaker came into the room. She began to speak about their relationship. Though her English was not perfect, the three of us sat spell-bound.
A Sad Journey
She described how she moved to Chicago from Belize after her youngest son died. She came to find work and had to leave her two older daughters at home.
She found work as a caretaker for the mother. The two of them instantly clicked.
They were both in profound pain: the caretaker at the loss of her son, and the mother at the loss of her health.
How Healing Happens
Each brought a measure of healing to the other. The caretaker showed the mom unabashed love.
She listened to her stories. She treated her with dignity. The two surviving sons admitted that the caretaker did things for their mom that they never could.
And the mom gave the caretaker a listening ear. She gave her a lifetime of experience. She gave her a person to care for and love.
Part of the process of healing is leaving the shell of our own pain.
Part of the process of healing is leaving the shell of our own pain. We do not forget or ignore it, but we avoid letting it become a cloud that envelopes our entire body and soul.
Pastor Rick Warren described this truth beautifully when he spoke to a group of ministers about the suicide of his son.
“Your greatest ministry,” he said, “will come out of your deepest hurt. We mistakenly think that the world is impressed by how we handle prosperity, but the fact is the world is impressed by how we handle adversity.”
Holding Our Finger Up to the Sun
A great hasidic rabbi once said a finger held up to the eye can block the sun. In other words, our own pain can cloud out all the light shining around us.
When we reach out to help another—when our pain become a catalyst for our heart—we lower that finger and let the light shine in.