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What a Wonderful World

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 25, 2014


(To understand this sermon, please note that the song "What a Wonderful World" was sung right after the Barchu in place of the "traditional" prayer. The Rabbi's remarks are based on this unexpected "change" to the service.)

            They called it "the long, hot summer" – June, July, and August 1967.

            Aside from the fact that the War in Vietnam was escalating, here in America 159 race riots took place.

            They happened in Atlanta, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Chicago, and elsewhere, but the mother of them all took place over five July days in Detroit.  7200 arrests were made.  2000 buildings were destroyed.  43 people lost their lives.  The Governor called in the National Guard; President Johnson sent the Army to restore order.

            And...then...a little over two weeks later...a gentleman by the name of Louis Armstrong finished his midnight show at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas and proceeded to record a new song for ABC Records.  He and the crew worked from 1 am. to 6 a.m. that August night, and when the sun came up, they went out to breakfast.  The new recording they left behind in the studio was called "What a Wonderful World."

            I see trees of green, red roses too.  
I see them bloom, for me and you.  
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

            Detroit was still smoldering.  Vietnam was going from bad to worse.  A naval aviator by the name of John McCain was to be shot down over Vietnam within weeks.  He would be a prisoner of war for over five years.  Violence was erupting in the Congo and Biafra...And Louis Armstrong was singing,

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white.  
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. 
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

            For that matter, all these years later when ISIS has beheaded two Americans and done so much more that is beastly, when Ebola is decimating life in Africa, the Cantor and I have placed "What a Wonderful World" in our worship service.

            What were we thinking?

            How did that song enter our liturgy on this major Day of Awe?

            Here's how it happened:  It was a day last June (before the world had quite unraveled as much as it did over the summer).  The Cantor and I were beginning to plan these holiday services.  We were doing so after both of us had read an essay by one of our seminary teachers, Larry Hoffman. 

The essay was entitled "Doing it Right or Doing it Well," and it drew our attention because Hoffman is the leading authority on Jewish prayer in the Reform world.  He is an expert on the origins and development of the Jewish prayerbook. 

About a year ago he published "Doing it Right or Doing it Well" in which he suggested that we Jews often spend too much time trying to get everything "right" in our service, regardless of whether or not that makes our services work for most people.  We've got a huge, complex prayer tradition.  It's so big we even need a separate prayerbook for the High Holidays.  To do the service "right," then, it feels as if we have to go through these ancient prayers page by page by page.

But what if doing it all and therefore doing it "right" means we're not doing it very "well?"  Hoffman says doesn't it make more sense to worry less about doing it "right" and to pay more attention to doing it "well?"

That's how we got to "What a Wonderful World" this morning.  We knew that right after the Barchu we always do a prayer about God's creating the world.  We also know it's a prayer about the splendor of creation that appears in every morning service all year round.  And it suddenly occurred to us:  although it was correct to read the standard prayer one more time, there was no way one more reading would capture its meaning or be anything but the recitation of rote words.  Boring! 

So, why not take another text about creation and beauty and gratitude and shake things up for the New Year?  Do the service "well." 

Why not surprise you by imagining that "What a Wonderful World" could be a vital, authentic prayer on the classic theme of creation. 

That is how we decided to pull a switch on you, and I couldn't wait to see your eyes light up when the Cantor sang the song. 

Trees of green, red roses too, skies of blue and clouds of white.

This was not a predictable moment in the familiar setting of Jewish worship.  And that was the point.  Something unexpected.  Something different.


But could you say the song didn't work because you can't declare the world is wonderful in September 2014?

It was a great idea to use the song last June, but that was before so much destruction took place in Israel and Gaza.  That was before ISIS jumped into the headlines with its vehement, violent brand of Islam.  That was certainly before we saw pictures of Ebola victims and their families wailing in pain.

It's dark out there in our world.  It's mean. 

The U'netane Tokef is pitch perfect when it tells us that this is a day for fear and trembling.  The largest reality at the turn of a new year is that life is uncertain.  We don't know who shall be secure and who shall be driven, although we do know that many people around the world are already insecure and driven to despair.

For that matter, the rabbis, who gave us the standard morning prayers with their expressions of thanks for light and life, also conducted a debate in the Talmud about the value of life.  We're told that the rabbis debated  2 ½ years as to whether or not it would have been better for humanity not to be created.  Their conclusion?  Given the way human beings conduct themselves, it would have been better for us not to be created!

That's dark.  It might even be true.

Consider the Torah.  Depending on how you read our core text, you might also conclude that life is meant to be a disappointment.

The Book of Genesis suggests this somber reading.  Adam and Eve are placed in a luxurious Garden of Eden when they are created, but, within moments, they disobey God's rules and they are exiled from Eden. 

Now go to the end of the Torah.  Our ancestors have spent a generation heading towards the Promised Land.  Moses has devoted his life to making the journey.  And what happens?  Moses dies just outside the land.  He doesn't get there.  Although the people will ultimately get there, the Torah closes with them also outside the land. 

Their dreams haven't come true.  Many dreams for many people never come true. 

For that matter, what better reality check than a play that opened on Broadway fifty years ago this week?  It was called Fiddler on the Roof, and at the heart of the drama there are two major events:  first, at the end of Act One a Jewish wedding is broken up by a pogrom; second, the play ends as the Jews of Anatevka are expelled from their homes.

That's dark and real.  That's our "wonderful" world.

Or is it?

Because as make-believe as a musical has to be, there is a song at the core of Fiddler that I believe transcends the pain of the pogrom and the expulsion. 

The song is really a kind of proclamation that begins to shed some light on the dark stage of life.  In fact, the song is called L'CHAIM – TO LIFE.  

You may remember where the song arises.  Tevye, the man at the center of Fiddler, has just concluded the marital arrangements that will see his daughter, Tzeitel, marry the butcher, Lazar Wolf.  It's time for a toast, but the two Jews don't clink glasses saying CHEERS.  Instead, they say and sing and dance and insist, L'CHAIM – TO LIFE. 

Listen to the words because I think they embrace a very textured, very Jewish understanding of life. 

Yes, l'chaim...Let's drink.

            Yes, l'chaim...To good fortune.

            Yes, l'chaim...To happiness.

            But the words of the song are also more subtle.  Tevye and Lazar Wolf burst with joy, but also acknowledge that life can sometimes leave "our hearts panting on the floor."  "Life," they sing," has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us."

            Confusing, blessing, bruising.

            That strikes me as a very real way to describe what happens to many of us much of the time.

            Life confuses us.

            Life bruises us.  Life really bruises us and so many other good people.

            But we keep going because, as the song suggest (confusing, blessing, bruising us) in between life blesses us. 

Or put it this way:  In between the confusing and the bruising parts, life can bless us. 

            Take it one Jewish step further:  As Jews, we are determined to find those blessings and embrace them with our hearts and souls.

            That is why the same tradition that gives us U'netane Tokef and the judgment that it would be just as well for humanity not to have been created also offers us another perspective.

Remember, dark as the world could be, the sages who wrote U'netane Tokef also never stopped saying the morning prayer we replaced this morning.  "Praised are You, God," they would say.  "You create the world fresh and new every day.  You do so with mercy and love."

And the same teachers who endured exile, hunger, and disease also proposed that the first words out of a Jew's mouth in the morning ought to be, "Modeh ani l'fanecha, melech chai v'kayam...Thank You, God, for restoring my soul."  Now on to the new day.

There is a Talmudic dictum that says a Jew ought to say 100 blessings a day.  How could that be?  The answer is that, in a traditional setting, a Jew could say the blessing phrase "Baruch Atta Adonai" many times over by simply praying the daily service.  Even at that, however, he would still be short on having said 100 blessings.  Which means that in order to fill out the "100 blessings," a Jew – you or I - would have to search for blessings.

On a rainy day, we would need to give thanks for a dry roof over our heads.

On a cold day, we would give thanks for a warm coat.

On a busy day, we would give thanks for the mere fact we can walk or talk or write as much as we must.

On a sick day, we would find blessing in the presence of loved ones around us.

On a lonely day, we would search for blessing in the memory of past beauty or in the anticipation of beauty we plan to create. 

On a broken-down day, we would close our eyes and seek quiet comfort and strength from God.

Bottom line - Every day is a day to be on the lookout for a blessing. 

I think the most profound touch of Jewish faith in life comes in a rabbinic conversation about the story of creation.  On the one hand, I know that story can be read as a tale of failure.  Adam and Eve are exiled from paradise into a world of sweat and tears.  On the other hand, one group of rabbis doesn't read the Genesis story in that way at all.

Instead, they ask why the whole Torah begins with the Hebrew word BRESHIT, which happens to begin with the B letter – BET.

Several answers are offered in the midrash, but the one I have loved since I first learned it in rabbinic school goes as follows.  The Torah begins with the letter BET because that letter BET also begins the word BRACHA which means blessing.  And the world is meant to be a place of blessing.  The world is meant to be a place where blessings can be found.  It is meant to be a place where blessings can be made. 

In the end, that is why we sang "What a Wonderful World" this morning.  I know the song is sentimental.  In this cruel world the song pushes the boundary of belief.  Rainbows are a rarity.  We all too often hear babies cry because they are hungry or hurting.

But we come here for these few precious hours to declare that what is is not what ought to be. 

We grab hold of our own tradition's belief that, despite the terrors of the night, a new morning and a new year offer promises of better times to come.

We are here (so fortunate to be here) because we need to regroup, recharge, refocus, and regain what is so sacred and necessary for living:  a dose of innocence, a spoonful of hope, a measure of faith.

We need it all.

We need to sit up tall.

I won't be so foolish as to wish you a "happy" new year.  But I can wish you Shana Tova - a good new year.  A year in which someone shakes your hand, asks how do you do, and lets you know they love you.

Or if that's too much, let there be someone for everyone who can at least say:  I care for you.  I care about you.

You...and you...and you are part of what makes this "a wonderful world" for me.


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