As I have shared with you on multiple occasions, I am an optimist. And yet, these 18 months of pandemic have tested my optimism severely.
At one point during the last eighteen months of pandemic-induced isolation — it was sometime last winter, during the coldest, darkest, most isolated period — I found myself looking for a good recording online of a song that I had once sung for a concert with my synagogue choir at Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston when I lived there in the late 1990s. The song was “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, which was based on the novel of French writer and philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by his pen name, Voltaire. I probably spent 45 minutes listening to various versions.
And I found myself crying.
Crying from the pain of isolation, from the gnawing feeling of all of the missed opportunities for teaching, for celebrating together, for being unable to gather our community in person for all the things that we do. I was crying for what seemed at the time a lost world.
And the song is just so darned beautiful. If you are unfamiliar with Candide, you might want to check it out:
And you know how some songs are just so appealing, so powerful that they give you the shivers, or that they make you cry? Well, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous song.
But even more so, what got me more than Bernstein’s music (the sextet, choir, and orchestra) was Voltaire’s message. Candide, published in 1759, was primarily a rejection of the philosophy of optimism, and in particular the school of thinking headed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German Christian polymath of the late 17th / early 18th century. Leibniz believed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Voltaire clearly abhorred this philosophy, and set out to lampoon Leibnizian optimism by making Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, seem like utter fools for believing in it. As the book draws to a close, they realize the error of their ways. And so the operetta concludes thus:
Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!
“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please / those Edens can’t be found.”
The lyrics, written by American poet Richard Wilbur, include what might be a hidden nod to a well-known midrash about Creation: that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. That is, the creation of the world that is described in Bereshit in the story which we will read tomorrow morning as we start the cycle of Torah once again is only the last one in a whole line of less-than-perfect worlds. (I do not think that Wilbur was Jewish, although of course Bernstein was.)
A few chapters later in Parashat Noaḥ, God acknowledges that life on Earth has become corrupt, and destroys virtually all living things in the flood. The implicit message of the midrash and the subsequent flood story is that, although many worlds came before and God settled on this one, the world that we are in is clearly NOT perfect. We cannot be living in the best of all possible worlds, but God had effectively given up on trying to create that world.
Dr. Pangloss, and hence Leibniz, were absolutely wrong, in Voltaire’s opinion. And so when Candide and his friends sing these words at the end, they are confessing to the failure of optimism. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have this world, and it is up to us to live and do the best we can, given that reality. We should, therefore, build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow, and not be deluded into thinking too optimistically about our lives. Life is ultimately about the hard work of taking it day by day, of not necessarily expecting the best possible outcome, but rather accepting the routine ups-and-downs.
Voltaire’s language even echoes that of Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, which tells us that God put humans in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ulshomerah, to till it and to tend it, or in Latin, ut operaretur.
“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”
This conclusion is not far from that of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat morning. And I suppose that is why it was so cathartic when I played and replayed Bernstein’s musical take on Voltaire’s rejection of optimism.
The holidays of Tishrei run through a whole palette of emotions: from the foreboding and triumphant grandeur of Rosh HaShanah, to the gravitas and genuflection of Yom Kippur, to the pure family-centric joy of Sukkot, to the statement of vulnerability as we beat willow branches on the floor Hoshana Rabba, to the wild dancing and singing with abandon of Simhat Torah. Oh yeah, and then there’s Shemini Atzeret, whatever THAT’S about.
Well, actually, although the origin of Shemini Atzeret is as the eighth day of Sukkot, it is probably most associated today as a day of Yizkor, a day of remembrance of those whom we have lost. This is, of course, a Yom Tov day, a day of happiness and family meals (although eating in the sukkah is considered optional today), but the inclusion of Yizkor guarantees that this is a day of reflection, of perspective.
For Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, at the very end of a long and grueling holiday run, I often find myself feeling a lingering sense of eternity, of looking at this snapshot of our lives as we begin 5782, and thinking, where was I last year, spiritually speaking, and what does this year hold for me? And it makes sense that on this day of reflection, we might flip back in our minds to both the good and the not-so-good times.
That is why tomorrow, just before Musaf, when I chant the Ḥatzi Qaddish, I will use melodies from throughout the Jewish year in a relatively obscure, yet interesting cantorial tradition known in Yiddish as the Yahres Kaddish, the Kaddish of the full year. It is a reminder not only of these holidays, but the entire spiral of the Jewish year, as we continue onward and upward, around and around as we grow and mature and learn and fail and succeed.
These are days on which we remember not only grief and loss, but also joy and happiness and celebration. And we also remember to keep in perspective what enables us to keep going around in that upward spiral, that sense of taking each day as it comes, trying to do the right thing for ourselves and each other, working and learning and playing and spending time with friends and family. Good things will happen in the coming year: people will get married; babies will be born; children will graduate from high school; there will be moments of joy. And so too will beloved family members die, and get divorced, and projects will fail and people will have financial hardships, and there will be bored moments and suffering and of course more disease and corruption and malfeasance.
And all those things are features of the jumble of our lives. As Qohelet / Ecclesiastes (1:9) tells us, “Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashamesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. Put another way, Pirqei Avot (5:22) says, “Hafokh ba vahafekh ba dekhola ba.” Turn it over and over, because everything is in it. “It” of course, is the Torah, but Torah is likewise a reflection of the complex tapestry of our lives.
On this day of Yizkor, this day of remembrance, let us not forget that those whom we remember in these moments, who gave us life and nurtured us and gifted us their talents and wisdom and yes, sometimes even their flaws, are still a part of the weave of that tapestry.
And as we conclude this holiday season, we also remember that, in the words of Candide, we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but we will do the best we know. We will try to be satisfied with sacrificing the perfect for the sake of the good enough. And that is perhaps the most valuable message we might take away from right now, as we add another year, another layer.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret 5782, Tuesday morning, 9/28/2021.)