Posts Tagged ‘change’

The Essence of Change



This is my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon

You might know that I am a theater lover, particularly musical theater.   While in college I did 3 years of summer theater, participating in a number of musicals. My time playing small roles and being in the chorus taught me an important early lesson in life – I was not talented enough to make a career in musical theater. I saw the leading players, who were trying to make it in NY, struggling, spending their time as waiters, waitresses or doormen.

Over the years I have seen many shows, in NY, London, and other major cities, as well as community productions. Needless to say I am a pretty hard critic of theatrical productions – of both the quality of the presentation as well as the content of the play itself. I dismiss a lot of musical theater as “trite,” especially when I can finish the rhymes in songs before I hear them, or when I see the story line as insipid. There are the shows I have seen too many times and never want to see again – like Oklahoma.

Yes, I am really picky about the shows I like. In June, however, I saw Hamilton. I am completely obsessed with it! Hamilton might be the most brilliant musical theater production I have ever seen.   You see, I gravitate towards shows that bring change to musical theater. For example, in 1957 West Side Story opened on Broadway and brought issues of racism to the forefront of the stage. In 1965 Man of La Mancha presented a play within a play. A Chorus Line gave us an inside look at how theater works based on Michael Bennett’s observations of aspiring dancers auditioning for parts at a workshop. In 1987 Les Miserable eliminated dialogue from the show – creating a Broadway style opera – and used musical themes to subtly connect the story lines of opposite characters. Now there is Hamilton, a show that pushes the boundaries of musical theater to new limits in order to teach us lessons on our history, about who we are, and the true makeup of our nation.

In his unique telling of the narrative of Alexander Hamilton’s life, the show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda treats the history of the founding of our country with great reverence and respect. Unlike most representations of American history, however, Miranda’s story telling method brings light to aspects of the history, and our nation’s current makeup, that are often overlooked or buried. Too often our history is portrayed in a way that only recognizes a certain group of white, influential figures. “Hamilton” adds a deeper perspective of our history.

How? Well there are two obvious ways. First, his score is a conglomeration of musical styles: hip hop, rock, jazz and classical Broadway – which includes ballads and blues. He uses hip hop to highlight revolutionary activities – not just in the war but to emphasize how our republic was formed and operated. The flow of musical styles from number to number is seamless.   This mishmash of musical style acts as a metaphor for the diversity that makes up our country, which can be eye opening yet essential to the way our country is structured and operates. One of the most classical Broadway style numbers is sung by King George, thus representing the “Old World” as opposed to America’s new ways of doing things, which is often presented by hip hop or rap. During some of his musical numbers Miranda tips his hat to prior musicals with lyrical connections to shows, such as “South Pacific,” “1776” and “HMS Pinafore.” These references, just like the varying musical styles are (I believe) meant to show how our country is a sum total of diverse sources, and that all of these sources are a necessary component of who we really are.

A second teaching tool is the casting. Three key characters in this story are slave owning Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – 3 of our first 4 presidents. All of them are played by African Americans. Indeed, the cast of this show breaks all the boundaries of the old school approach to theatrical casting. The mixture of different races and ethnicities hammers home the lesson that our country was founded for everyone, and its story belongs to everyone, not just an elite group of wealthy white men.

Even more, from its very beginning, the show makes sure we understand that it was more than well-known founding fathers who contributed to the strength of our country. For example, during a scene that depicts a cabinet debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial plan, Jefferson states (in a rap style) that Virginia is wealthy, successful and plants seeds, so why should Virginians take on the debt of other states like New York. Hamilton replies (also in rap style) that we know who was actually planting the seeds for Virginians (i.e. slaves) and that Virginians were profitable because of slavery. The message is clear. Not only is slavery wrong (highlighted numerous times in the show), but black slaves were the unseen, unacknowledged resource that provided the platform for Virginians’ (and other southern states) claimed success.

The essence, then, of the lessons Hamilton teaches us is this. Through a radical change in the way show is written and cast, we learn about the diversity of our country from its very beginning, and the contributions of all ethnicities to our country. These facts have always been part of our history – just hidden in the standard historical presentations.   We are, and have always been, a conglomerate of contributors to the building of our country’s success. Sometimes we resist accepting that fact. Lin Manuel Miranda’s work through Hamilton enhances our perspective on American history.

So what does this have to do with us Jews, or Rosh Hashanah? Well, our story is the same. We are made up of varied ethnicities, multiple traditions, and many sources – often from outside the Jewish world. And these outside sources have changed the essence of Judaism, of the Jewish people. Since there is not a Broadway musical to help show these facts, I will share a number of historical examples with you. And please forgive me for not being able to do it in rap style.

The first example, however, is connected to a piece of music we all know (sing a verse of Ma Tovu). According to the Torah, these are the words of Balaam, a non Israelite prophet hired by king Balak to curse the Israelites. If you want to read the full story of Balaam and Balak, see Numbers chapters 22 through 24. You will be very amused, especially by Balaam’s talking donkey that I believe was the inspiration for the old TV show, “Mr. Ed.” On the way to curse the Israelites Balaam encounters God, who changes his mission. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blesses them with the words of Ma Tovu.

Who exactly is Balaam? Well, Jewish tradition is very hard on Balaam. One midrash says he was destined to be a prophet to the world, and was of greater intelligence than Moses, but was morally deficient. Another says he was an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt. The Talmud teaches that his name is a play on the Hebrew words balah am which means “he devoured people.” Yet his characterization in the Torah makes him seem like a decent man – just a bit befuddled. Given the strange episode about Balaam in Numbers, it is easy to think he is just a mythological character. However, inscriptions found on a wall in Deir ‘Alla, an ancient town in Jordan, refer to a real Balaam, who is connected with the God Ishtar. He apparently did good deeds on behalf of the people living in that valley.

Why is any of this significant? Because the words of Ma Tovu, which open every Jewish morning service, are attributed to a foreign prophet who archeology shows identified with a non-Israelite god. This, however, is only the beginning of a history of the influence of outside sources on Judaism and Jewish tradition.

After the conquest of the Persian province of Judah in roughly 332 BCE, Greek culture greatly affected Jewish tradition, making significant additions and changes to Jewish practice. During the last 2 centuries BCE, Hellenistic culture had made significant inroads into all aspects of Jewish life. In literature, Biblical stories were recast in Greek mode. For example, Joseph’s story from Genesis was retold as “Joseph and Asenath,” in which Joseph was cast as having the powers of a demi-god, such as Hercules. Joseph is described as coming from the sun on a chariot, bringing the suns rays with him.

We can thank Greek thought for some key ideas we now identify as Jewish – most significantly the concept of an eternal soul. This opens the door to a real discussion of life after death – what really happens after we die? Is there something that lives on? The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible give no real description or belief in afterlife, but after adopting the idea of the soul, it permeates Judaism. The rabbinic schools of thought, exemplified by the schools of Hillel and Shammai, are based on the schools of Greek philosophical thought. Further, we see a vestige of Greek influence every Pesach when we have the children search for the afikomen during our seder.

Just as there was Jewish pushback against Balaam, there is a long history of Jewish pushback against Greek influence. The Maccabean revolt grew out of a conflict between two groups of Jews: those who wanted to assimilate more into Greek culture and those who saw that assimilation as a threat to Jewish existence and tradition. The Talmud contains much debate on whether Jews should be allowed to study Greek language as well as Greek thought. In the end it is allowed, but not without many objections and arguments.

By the 7th century CE, much of the Jewish population had fallen under Islamic rule. The Islamic culture of the middle ages was one of high intellectual and scientific achievement. A group of Moslem thinkers worked hard to mitigate the seeming contradictions between philosophy and science on the one hand, and theology on the other. The exact same exercise happened in the Jewish world, led by theologians such as Saadia ben Yosef and Maimonides. Both Moslem and Jewish thinkers were studying and applying the philosophic works of Plato and Aristotle to their religions. In 9th century Babylon, for example, Saadia ben Yosef used philosophic reasoning to prove creation ex nihilo and to demonstrate the importance of free will in Jewish observance.

But the influence of Islam on Judaism is even simpler than philosophical. The kippah or yarmulke that many of us wear does not originate in Torah. Research indicates we adopted wearing head coverings to show subservience to God, from the Moslem culture in Babylonia. It took only a few centuries for this to be so identified as something essentially Jewish that by the middle ages a rabbi was consulted on whether halachah permitted prayer services if the men do not wear a head covering. His response was while it was technically ok, it did not feel appropriate.

Even Christianity has influenced the development of modern Judaism. One notable example is the role of the rabbi. Traditionally the rabbi was a teacher, interpreter and judge of law and a community leader. His role was not to lead prayer services, or to provide pastoral care. As Jews became more integrated into Christian communities in Europe and America through the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis became the Jewish versions of Protestant ministers. There are certainly many factors that contributed to this change, but the change is a fact.

You see, change is a reality that we often resist. Change is built into the very structure of the world from the moment it was created – and that is not just a scientific perspective. Every day of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis describes changes God made to the world. The rabbinic explanation for the second chapter of Genesis that retells the creation story differently than the first chapter, is that God recognized the need to change what was originally created, so God changed creation. Change is built into the DNA of the world.

Change brought by outsiders who we often see as others or even enemies, is a fact we loathe to accept. Yet that is the reality of life. No person, group, religion, or country can live in isolation from the influences of the rest of the world. It is our personal biases and inhibitions that prevent us from accepting the fact that our nation, our religion, and ourselves are all the result of amazing diversity and interaction with others – often our opposites – who cause change.

Yet, that is not the very essence of change. Real change is not just about the changes caused by the nature of the world around us. Real change is about adjusting our perspective, to accept the reality of what the world is – a sea of change – and not be stuck in our preconceived notions guided by our instincts. Real change is about our ability to be open to learning, listening, and even changing our thoughts and beliefs, sometimes in radical ways. And there is a musical play about this. It is Ground Hog Day, a musical based on the movie starring Bill Murray. Do you remember it? Murray is an obnoxious newsman who gets stuck in reliving the same day over and over again. The events of the day do not change, but Murray changes. He becomes a better, more caring person who appreciates the reality of his existence and those around him.

That is the essence of change. The facts of the world are there. How do we perceive them? Are we open to them or not? Are we ready to always learn and modify our perspective on those facts or not? Are we open to learning more of them and thus challenge our biases or not?

Now is the moment appropriate to engage in the self-reflection necessary for personal change. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah. We always interpret that as the beginning of the year. But the word Shanah also means “change.” Tonight is the beginning of change, your change, my change. Look at this as an opportunity to grow, to learn, to reach a level you have not encountered before. I hope we all embrace this chance. I am. For as Lin Manuel Miranda says playing the character Alexander Hamilton, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

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