The Fiddler and the Pandemic
We wake up and go to sleep these days with questions: “When will our lives return to normal?” “When will I return to my job?” “When will our kids return to school?” “When will a vaccine be developed?” The answer, of course, is: We don’t know; COVID-19 has put much of our future on hold!
Recently, I was asked by a member of my synagogue: “Rabbi, what does Judaism say about coping with uncertainty?” “Truly,” I replied, “no people has grappled with life’s uncertainties more than ours! We’ve certainly learned something about that subject!” As I proceeded to reply to his question, an image sprang into my head; it was Marc Chagall’s famous painting of a rooftop fiddler. In the painting, Chagall depicts a smiling, dancing Jewish violinist who plays his instrument while somehow managing to balance himself on the roofs of his shtetl. I suddenly sensed that the fiddler epitomized Chagall’s answer—and mine—to a question. What does Judaism say about coping with an uncertain future?
Chagall’s painting evokes basic questions. Why doesn’t the fiddler seem worried about losing his balance and tumbling down those steep rooftops? Why does he appear so serene in his precarious world where, at any moment, a violent pogrom might be unleashed against him and his loved ones? I can almost hear the fiddler’s reply: “True, my future is rather unknown. But there is something that allows me to curb my worry and rise above the uncertainties in my life.”
What is that “something?” Well, an entire play has been written to answer that question!. It was, after all, Chagall’s painting that was the inspiration for the title of the well-known Fiddler on the Roof! musical. In fact, Tevye, the main character of the play, explains the symbolism of the fiddler in the opening scene:
“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!…And how do we keep our balance up there, you ask? Well, that, I can tell you in a word: Tradition! For…without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as…as...a fiddler on the roof!”
By “tradition,” of course, Tevye means the “Yiddishkeit,” the Jewish religious way of life that gives him and his fellow shtetl dwellers a sense of stability in their unpredictable lives. And he surely also means the blessings supported by tradition: love, family, optimism, friendship, laughter and community; these were blessings that were readily available to the Jews of Tevye’s shtetl. I think that’s what my dad, z”l, meant when he said: “Back in the shtetl, we had nothing; but on the other hand, we had everything.”
In this time of uncertainty, I can hear the fiddler speaking to us while carefully balancing himself on his roof: “Don’t let the pandemic unnerve you; savor the precious blessings available to you now that (with the help of modern technology) are right in front of you!”
Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus is the rabbi of Congregation Or Shalom in Orange.
Photo Caption: Marc Chagall (1887-1985) “The Green Violinist” Guggenheim Museum, New York City