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Parashat VAYIKRA: The Third Torah Book; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and UKRAINE

This coming Shabbat, we begin reading the third book of the Torah, VAYIKRA: “The Eternal One called to Moses…” VAYIKRA is the name of both the complete third book, and its first portion we read on this Shabbat. The third book of the Torah is also known by its Greek name, Leviticus. The primary contents of Vayikra concerns sacrifices. Beginning in the desert, the Israelites brought sacrifices to G-d Almighty. The sacrifices were meat and grain offerings that were ultimately roasted and then eaten by the Kohanim: initially Aaron, older brother of Moses, and his sons.

In this sidrah, we are instructed about five different categories of sacrifices and offerings to be brought to the Mishkan/portable Tabernacle.

The language of Vayikra is very technical. The specified sacrifices and the reasons for their offering are also very complex. It makes for difficult and hard work for all Torah readers to prepare. B’nai Mitzvah students who celebrate their S’mahot/joyous occasions on this date have to work extra hard to master the complicated Hebrew texts and the associated musical cantillation notes.

Modern Biblical scholars attribute the book of Vayikra/Leviticus to the “P” or “Priestly” strand of the Torah narrative. They claim that priests wrote the P chapters at some later time than the narrative sections that comprise most of the Books of Genesis and Exodus. The P texts are filled with complicated texts dealing with the sacrificial practices. 

The offerings brought by the Israelites to Aaron, the first High Priest, and his sons can be understood by us as paradigms for us 21st century Jews. Just as the Israelites brought sacrifices to Aaron and his family in order that they could maintain the entire operation of the Mishkan/Tabernacle in the desert, so we, too, should support our synagogues, Jewish schools, and Jewish communal organizations to the best of our abilities. Our KI leadership are fulfilling their Biblically based responsibilities when they ask us to support the congregation and its religious, educational, social activities, as well as maintaining its facilities.

Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra presented a full version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the immortal musical, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock.

In Fiddler, we are taught that the Jews kept their way of life because of tradition just like the ancient Israelites practiced sacrifices because it was their tradition!

The musical, Fiddler, based on the short stories of the early twentieth century Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, opened on Broadway in 1964, and ran for over 3000 performances! In 1971, the film version appeared, and it was an international runaway hit, winning three Academy awards. There were two major changes from the Broadway show: the Israeli actor Hayim Topol played Tevye, and the musical direction was given to the young composer John Williams. Williams took the wonderful Broadway score and rewrote it for full symphony orchestra. After the music was recorded by the London Philharmonic and edited into the film, the score and instrumental parts were lost!

A year ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra set in motion the process to notate the John Williams score from the recording-a massive undertaking! The new cast was comprised of a few Broadway veteran actors for the leads, and 25 students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. This company presented a complete performance of Fiddler, spectacularly accompanied by the entire Philadelphia Orchestra plus drum set and accordion, playing the long lost John Williams score for the first time before a live audience.

The resulting performance was magical! I lost my composure a few times, because of the magnificence of the total experience! The Philadelphia Orchestra was transformed into a theater orchestra, just as they had been for the performances of West Side Story and Candide during the Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration.

The Philadelphia Orchestra inserted into the program a handout with this message: “We Stand with the People of Ukraine. Fiddler takes place in 1905 in the mythical village of Anatevka. While it is a fictional village, its universal story is very real and evermore searing in light of the invasion of Ukraine. Now, at these performances, with the arts as our voice, we sing with our whole hearts for Ukraine.”

Anatevka is situated in 1905 Ukraine, a time and place filled with hundreds of small Jewish towns called Shtieblach. The politically radical Jewish student Perchik hired by Tevye to teach his daughters, comes from Kyiv, the closest large city and the capitol of contemporary Ukraine. During the show, the Constable and his gang of hooligans enter the stage to initiate and provoke a pogrom during the wedding scene. We could sense the Verizon Hall audience members’ fury at Putin and his army for killing so many innocent Ukrainians in cold blood. The same wave of anger swept through Verizon Hall when the Constable returned to exile all the Jews of Anatevka and surrounding towns in only three days. He yells that he doesn’t know why, but the Jewish population of the towns must vacate their homes.

Everyone in the audience identified the citizens of Anatevka with the scenes of destruction we are all witnessing daily on the news. We all understood the parallels to our times. The Russian invasion into Ukraine is without reason, and the resultant bloodshed is needless. Once again, the Jewish community, along with so many Ukrainian residents, must leave their homes in order to protect their family members, just as they did in 1905.

For us, Fiddler on the Roof took on new gravitas! The overwhelming artistic merit of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance only added to the eternal beauty and ultimate truth of this show. Its unforgettable music tinged with authentic Jewish musical phrases and rhythms, its haunting lyrics, and its meaningful book capturing the eternal struggle between tradition and change, between authentic time tested values, rituals, and practices, and the inevitable challenges brought on by modern living.

The Sidrah of Vayikra is filled with ritual and law. We are taught that we are required to support our Jewish religious, educational, and social institutions. We are taught to identify and support Jews who in great distress, as are the Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Ukraine, the victims of this unjust and cruel war. Let us all find ways to provide aid and comfort to the Jews and citizens of embattled Ukraine.

Ellen, our children, and our grandchildren join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.