A fascinating news story crossed my desk this past week. It was about Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who died last month at age 87, and was most famous for playing the role of Tevye the Milkman on stage in London and in the 1971 film version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Some of you know that my family is big into musical theater, and this film loomed large in my childhood. I have seen it many times. Topol actually landed the role of Tevye following his appearance in the classic Israeli film from 1964, “Sallaḥ Shabbati,” which captures the tale of mizraḥi immigrants, those who came from Arab countries to Israel in the early years of the State, and the various ethnic and tribal forces in play during that time. When he first arrived in London, Topol could barely speak English, and learned his lines in Fiddler phonetically.
Topol, it turns out, was also a spy, and due to his international fame and the access to certain quarters which it granted, was able to work as a Mossad operative. He had a tiny camera and tape recorder which he always traveled with, and among his most remarkable exploits was an episode where he and famed Israeli spy Peter Zvi Malkin bugged the embassy of an Arab country by setting up what looked like a dentists’ office next door, and then drilling into the embassy through the wall. When the embassy’s security guards heard drilling and came to investigate, Topol was lying in the dentist’s chair and Malkin was pretending to work on his teeth.
Topol’s son, who went public with his father’s spycraft tales, claimed that his father enjoyed the adventure of working as a spy. It certainly makes sense that an actor enjoyed playing multiple types of roles, and “Mossad agent” is a pretty juicy role, even if there is no audience.
It is a great story, capturing the scrappy tenacity of the early years of the State of Israel, which turns 75 years old on Wednesday. But there is also a reminder here that things are not always as they seem.
That is, of course, one of the implicit messages that our bat mitzvah delivered a few moments ago. Things are not always as they seem. What the Torah describes as a skin disease, tzara’at, can be understood as a metaphor for a range of spiritual afflictions. And when we dig closely into the text of the Torah, we see that this is a completely reasonable conclusion. The symptoms of tzara’at as described do not resemble any disease we know today, and it is notable that the person who determines the course of action for an apparent tzara’at infection is not a doctor, but rather a kohen, a priest. And the thing about some spiritual afflictions is that they can spread easily. They are contagious.
One such affliction today which we seem to have in abundance is fear. We have so many things about which to be fearful: Train derailments! Climate change! Political division! Mental illness! Anti-Semitism! Virus outbreaks! Microplastics in our water! The list is long, and the folks in the news and social media biz are great at playing these things up, because they press our buttons and drive us to click on more articles and videos and ironic memes and so forth. And, of course, those things only serve to make us more fearful, creating a feedback loop of negativity.
That fear is clearly a contemporary contagion which spreads far too easily. It makes me want to, in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 121:1), look up to the mountains and ask, from where will my help come? What will save us from all the modern plagues we face? Who will save us from the fear with which these things are infusing our lives?
The Psalmist answers (v. 2), as you might expect, that our help comes from God. God will save us from fear. And however you define God, there is quite a bit of wisdom in that.
In challenging times, which for the Jews have been for the last 2600 years or so, we have always leaned into our framework of ritual and ancient wisdom to give us strength, to provide emotional support when we need it, to provide comfort in times of grief and loss. And that support is still available to us today. That is one reason why there are so many people here this morning: not only because we are a congregation that celebrates benot mitzvah, young women who have reached the age of majority, by calling them to the Torah, but also because we are a congregation that meets daily to engage in prayer, such that we can draw strength every day from our ancient poetry and rituals. Because we are a congregation that engages with words of Torah in many ways.
Psalm 121, was one that we recited in Shabbat morning services on October 27, 2018, after we heard the news about what had happened half a mile away, and we continued to recite that Psalm for a long time thereafter.
When I heard last week about the young man in Kansas City, Ralph Yarl, who was shot and wounded when he rang the doorbell at the wrong house, as he was trying to pick up his twin brothers, my mind immediately went to the contagion of fear. Thank God, 16-year-old Ralph is going to make it – he was released from the hospital four days later, and I hope that he succeeds in his goal of studying chemical engineering at Texas A&M University – it’s a great department. (It’s where I received my first Master’s degree, in chemical engineering.)
Unfortunately, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was not so lucky. After driving up the wrong driveway in upstate New York one week ago, she was shot and killed. The shooter’s attorney has said that the accidental trespassers “created an atmosphere and a fear that there was menace going on.”
What is truly tragic about both of these case is that some of us are so fearful for our own safety that we absolutely feel like we must shoot first and ask questions later.
Do we feel so unsafe in our own homes that we answer the door armed? Do we value the lives of others so little that we assume that every interaction is going to go badly? Some believe that the way to prevent innocent people from being killed is to arm even more of us. Might this lead to even greater fear, an even greater preponderance of anxious trigger-finger shootings?
Fear is a contagion. It multiplies. It spreads.
My wife observes that I’ve been sighing a lot lately. These questions are among the many reasons I keep sighing.
There is a reason that the national anthem of the State of Israel is Hatiqvah, a poem written by the Hebrew poet Naftali Herz Imber in 1878. Hatiqvah tells the story of the hope of the Jewish people:
עוֹד לֹא אַבְדָה תְּקְוַתֵינוּ, הַתִּקְוַה בַּתְ שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִים
Od lo avdah tiqvateinu / Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim*
We have not yet lost our hope / The hope of 2000 years
The source of the phrase “Od lo avdah tiqvateinu,” we have not yet lost our hope, is found in the haftarah we read two weeks ago, on Shabbat Ḥol Hamoed Pesaḥ, from the book of Ezekiel, in that prophet’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are re-animated by God. And once they are a standing crowd of people, the entirety of the House of Israel, they say, “יָבְשׁ֧וּ עַצְמוֹתֵ֛ינוּ וְאָבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ נִגְזַ֥רְנוּ לָֽנוּ׃” “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are doomed.” (Ezek. 37:11)
And then Ezekiel to reminds them that they will be returning to their home, to the land of Israel.
While this vision is understandably a favorite of Zionists, it is also a more universal metaphor. When all hope is lost; when we feel besieged and desiccated and despairing and metaphorically far from home, there is always hope for redemption. There is always hope for return. It is a comforting thought. Things are not always as they seem.
I wish that hope were as infectious as fear. I wish that we could look at the world and not see it falling apart, not see only decline and danger and poison and guns and threats to democracy at every turn. That miserable stuff is simply too easy to see all around us.
I wish instead that we had a healthier spiritual affliction, one which causes us to see the good in others, the successes of contemporary life, the ways that technology continues to improve our lives, the ways in which we navigate the challenges of the current moment. We do not have to be in the valley of dry bones; we can instead emphasize the redemptive qualities of the world we have right now.
If I had one hope for humanity, it would be that, rather than inclining toward fear of the others around us, we should rather give the benefit of the doubt, and incline toward hope. I pray for optimism to be contagious.
And I am going to go out on a limb here when I say that, while my understanding of God is quite unorthodox and does not necessarily fit the descriptions which come to us from our ancient literature, I firmly hold that it is our willingness to perceive God’s presence in our lives and ourselves that compels us to reach out to one another in love, to see the beauty in all others, to feel the occasionally hidden, yet undeniable yetzer hatov, inclination to good in all people, and in humanity. That perception of God breathes the impetus of love into our being.
Things are not always as they seem; our fear might mask our hope. But I have to believe that that hope is there, and is infectious, and that with God’s presence, we will be redeemed from fear once again. May there soon be a contagion of hope among us.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/22/2023.)