Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bruised Reeds

On Christmas day I received a little ornament – a rough-hewn house, with a violin player standing on the thatched roof playing his instrument.

Before I even read the card, I knew. And last Thursday was the night.

The back story to this evening is that Hebron put on a production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1976. I had the privilege of playing Chava, the third daughter.

However, because I was involved in every performance, I had never seen Fiddler; I relaized that I had not seen even the movie! Bronwyn knew this somehow and so she and Paul, Elliot and Oliver decided to give me my own special “Christmas event” this winter …

The evening started in their home with a magnificent lamb dinner complete with mint sauce, roast potatoes and a cornucopia of root vegetables, each individually garnished and served by candlelight on a table set lovingly with linens of burnished gold and with beaded rings encircling the matching napkins.

Then we piled into the van and drove to the Jubilee Auditorium.

As the lights went down and the curtain rose the first familiar, sweetly plaintive notes of the fiddler filled the house.

What followed in the next three hours was magical, a glimpse into the mundane life of "tumble-down, work-a-day" Anatevka, the tiny Jewish village occupied by Tevye (played with aplomb and great compassion by the renowned Theodor Bikel, at a mere 85 years of age!), his wife Golde, their five daughters and the people who were a part of their daily lives. It chronicles the daily showers of travail and trial that rain on the family and village -- the horse is lame, there is no money, the daughters are changing: TRADITION is being cut systematically into tatters with blunt, dull scissors.

Until there is a pogrom, followed some time later by the announcement that all the Jews in the village must sell their houses and disperse. Tsar's orders. One of the last scenes in the play shows the villagers walking slowly in a circle, singing "Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place", evoking images of Moses and the 40 years of wilderness circling ... of the captivities and exiles ... of the perpetual looking for a home, trying to attain the promised land.

But through it all, Tevye talks to God. He discusses everything with God, from his horse dropping a shoe to his wife's nagging to his daughters' drifting further away from their father's spiritual and secular traditions. He is never afraid to approach God to question, to share, to acknowledge, to thank.

Tears coursed down my face at several points of the performance and by the end my heart ached. How much the "chosen ones" have suffered and continue to suffer to this day! Still they wander; still they wait.

I have been haunted by the stories woven together to comprise this wonderful performance. My soul has been weighed down with the sadness and valour and humour and moral compass of this story, of what this story represents. How do people hold on to hope? How do they go on? How much apparent abandonment can be endured?

Oh, Haiti ...

... On Sunday morning I was at Penhold with Dad. He had a full sermon prepared - complete with typed-out notes! - but minutes before he had to take the pulpit, God impressed upon him another text from which to speak, a completely different sermon to impart.

The text was Psalm 40:17, "But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me. Thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God."

To gain context, verse 11 lets us know that King David, who wrote the Psalm, was beset with troubles from within and without. (Dad didn't point this out, but in studying the Psalm later I counted that David lists seven things that God has done for him; seven things he has done to honour God; and nine things that he asks of God, excluding the one in verse 17.)

Dad showed us that verse 17 reveals four things:
  • the Condition - "poor and needy", physically, mentally and / or spiritually
  • the Comfort - "the Lord thinketh upon me", even when it seems no one else does
  • the Confession - "Thou art my help and my deliverer"
  • the Cry - "make no tarrying, O my God"
And then Dad told a story I had never heard before.

My grandfather Patrick Charles O'Halloran was a business man with a great love for the Jews. Once he was at the Magen David Synagogue in Bombay and was speaking with a prominent rabbi from New York who had come to give a series of lectures at the synagogue. As the two men spoke together the rabbi commented painfully, "God has forgotten us."

"Look at the palms of your hands," my grandfather responded. "Rub the lines of your hands out. Erase the lines if you can." And then he quoted the great prophet Isaiah: "Can it be that a woman would forget her nursing child, or that a mother should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, even these may forget you; yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands!" (Isaiah 49:15, 16)

"God has not forgotten you," my grandfather told the rabbi.

... On Sunday evening I had the chance to visit briefly with one of my five favourite men in the world. This man has been through deep waters of testing and trials in the past two or more years. Sunday night I was praying for him and his wife but I had no idea of how to pray for them or for what to ask. I finally simply asked for a word of encouragement to pass on to him.

"A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth justice into victory" (both Isaiah and Matthew).

... And then on Monday morning I finally got to read Sunday's dictionary Word of the Day: "apposite"

apposite \AP-uh-zit\, adjective:

Being of striking appropriateness and relevance; very applicable; apt.

As we survey Jewish history as a whole from the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Judah Halevi's phrase "prisoner of hope" seems entirely apposite. The prisoner of hope is sustained and encouraged by his hope, even as he is confined by it.
-- Jane S. Gerber (Editor), The Illustrated History of the Jewish People

The ancient prophet Zechariah, too, talked to the prisoner of hope:

"Return to the strong room, O you prisoners of hope; this very day I am declaring that I will restore double to you ..." (Zechariah 9:12)

The fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof symbolizes how fragile life is. As Tevye puts it, "Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck." The fiddler shows up at key moments of grief or of joy fraught with change. At times Tevye would wave him off; but in the last scene, as the family is leaving Anatevka and the fiddler appears, Tevye signals to the fiddler to join them in the cart. It is like Tevye has finally accepted that no matter where you are, there is no escaping the challenges and hardships that life presents.

But it also spoke to me of the fact that wherever there are difficulties, there is also the music of remembrance, the melody of hope.

God's people - whether wandering in a desert or buried under rubble or immobilized by circumstances out of their hands - have not been forgotten.

The bruised reed will not be broken.

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