This weekend we enjoyed seeing our daughter and many of our friends perform the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Walking into the theater, I anticipated hearing those fun Fiddler songs, laughing at Tevye’s humor, and seeing some great dancing. We enjoyed all that and more!
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was walking out of the theater feeling so sad. For some reason, this time as I absorbed the story, I really felt Tevye’s pain. During the first act, he sang with gusto about “Tradition!” But by the end of the second act, those traditions had crumbled at his feet.
One by one, he let his daughters go. First Tzeitel, rejecting the matchmaker’s choice of a husband, begs her father to allow her to marry Motel, the village’s “poor tailor.” Tevye reluctantly agrees. Second, Hodel falls in love with Perchik, a traveling revolutionary, whom she eventually follows to Siberia. I cried as Tevye said goodbye to Hodel at the train station, praying that God would keep her warm. Third and most difficult of all, sweet little Hava, who goes against everything her father believes in by marrying a non-Jew. Tevye has had enough. He says, “If I bend that far, I will break!” He rejects Hava and her new husband, unwilling to accept a non-Jew into the family.
Tevye’s traditions form the foundation for his life. “Without them,” he declares, “life would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!” And that becomes the metaphor for Tevye’s life. As his traditions crumble, so does his footing. He becomes like that fiddler, ready to fall at any moment.
Jesus talks to people like Tevye in Mark 7. Mark tells us that the Pharisees meticulously follow their manmade traditions regarding daily practices such as eating food and washing hands or dishes. Jesus says to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He describes them as people whose hearts are far away from him, worshipping their traditions rather than their God. He even accuses them of making God’s word void by handing down their traditions instead of God’s true commandments. Yikes.
I usually don’t feel sorry for the Pharisees, but Tevye’s story changed that. I could see some of myself in poor Tevye, letting go of one thing after another. I felt his pain as each daughter chose to go her own way. Tevye bends, yes, but does he break? No. Even with Hava, in the end Tevye chooses relationship over tradition. By saying to her, “God be with you,” Tevye extends grace, opening the door to Hava to remain his beloved daughter.
Tevye’s story and the Pharisees in Mark 7 make me ask myself, are there any traditions I am holding too tightly? Are there any cultural beliefs that I am confusing with godly beliefs? Am I holding on to my traditional beliefs, or am I holding on to Jesus?
The fiddler doesn’t fall off the roof, and neither does Tevye. He makes the difficult decision to let go of his traditions. I think he recognizes that his foundation rests not on his traditions, but on the God he serves. May we all have the same courage!