Updated: Apr 13, 2021
February 28, 2019
As a child, I was fearless in the ocean. Waves would come crashing down and I would leap headlong toward them to overcome their kinetic force. There were even times that I would take a floating board and sit atop the wave as it rumbled to the shore. Nothing was more fearful, however, when I would get caught under an oncoming wave and be tossed and tumbled by the crushing force, hoping to have enough breath and enough equilibrium to restore my balance on the ocean floor before the next wave crested. The scariest moments were when wave after wave would break and I could not readily feel any return to balance. It seemed like the unsettling force would never end.
How metaphorical is the experience of the waves as a child to the tumultuous times we live in today? Moment after moment another explosive wave of concern comes crashing into our lives. How fearful can we become when wave, after wave, after wave draws us further into the maelstrom of imbalance and uncertainty? And yet, when we're strong, we bravely push through the force of motion toward some tranquility on the other side. We can even courageously ride atop the waves, feeling a sense of empowerment and joy that we're going in the right direction.
In time we can learn how to navigate the forces of the ocean. In time we can learn how to navigate these tumultuous times too. That is what good Jewish communal life is about. Jewish community brings together concerned individuals, imbued with strength and a sensitivity to our vulnerabilities. Community tackles life most pressing issues... together. We have yet to fully understand what is required for us to restore balance to our fractured social universe. It's why we learn, worship, and act together, because it isn't safe to navigate this world alone. The benefits of communal life are found inside this building and out in the world too.
Recently, I had the privilege of watching a performance of E.L Doctorow's Ragtime. The show, adapted by Terrence McNally, is a literary masterpiece that chronicles the stories of a black performer and his fiance, a white privileged family, an immigrant Jewish father and daughter, a voluptuous chorus girl, and a sexually ambivalent social revolutionary. The dramatic changes in their lives unfold while the music of the day, called ragtime, plays a syncopated rhythm. The Broadway hit, nominated for many awards in 1998, told a story of social unrest, injustice, and the marvels of American prosperity in the early 1900's. And some of it's messages are still quite resonant, even today.
More than the chilling narratives focusing on police brutality, indifference to the suffering of the impoverished or the folly of public opinion, the compelling message of a show like Ragtime is that problems that afflict our age are incredibly focused on interactions between people. In other words, in our day we are not fighting against hunger or disease that can take the lives of any of us. Our concerns are how to treat each other with dignity and respect, especially when our differences appear as threats.
One of the compelling messages of Ragtime is that wherever you turn, the thread holding the social fabric together is fraying. On the one hand, without that kind of focus, we would not have risen up to take responsibility for the ethical treatment of our brothers and sisters, especially the African-American community and the Jewish-American community. On the other hand, the march of progress can be so incredibly overwhelming, no matter which way you turn the circumstances of living are simply overwhelming.
In our day, it is vitally important to stay focused amidst the cacophony of needs on the most fundamental concerns, like the equal treatment and education of women, the rights of Jews to live in peace, and the ongoing efforts to alleviate of hunger and homelessness in our societies as a whole. Would that these three points of concern be enough! Yet, without some focus, all the concerns of our day will become muted and ineffective.
It was the music Of something beginning, An era exploding, A century spinning In riches and rags, And in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it Ragtime…
We have many lessons yet to learn from these revolutionary moments. I believe we can begin applying those lessons to the world around us. Indeed, the world is waiting for our response each and every day.