By Michael Greenfield
It was Lenny Bruce who explained that Count Basie, Ray Charles, black cherry soda, and Italians are all Jewish. Also fruit salad. Fruit salad is obviously Jewish. So is the movie Groundhog Day – he didn’t say that, I did. But you can see it, right? The movie is a fast-tracked swing through the annual cycle of High Holy Days introspection. We live our lives the way we want, and then Yom Kippur rolls around with the fasting and the praying intensifying as darkness approaches and we collectively remember our failings and ask, “Who shall have six more weeks of winter, and who shall enjoy an early spring?”
Is there anything more Jewish than that? And just in case we missed the point of Yom Kippur, we follow it up with Simchat Torah, the holiday on which we finally read the last verse of the Torah and then immediately celebrate by starting over again with the first verse. I tell my young students that it’s like reading Goodnight Moon over and over. How long was it before you realized that tiny mouse was doing something different on every one of the colored pages? With the older kids, I ask them when they realized that at least a third of the jokes in the Pixar movies meant something totally different to the grownups. And I remind them that it – the book, the movie, the Torah – hasn’t changed at all, but we have. Which is how we find new meaning in something so familiar.
In the Talmud, Ben Bag Bag put it this way, “Turn it over, and turn it over again, because everything is in it. Look into it, and become gray and old with it, and do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.” Which, by the way, is a solid five-star review of the Torah.
I’ll be honest. I had no idea Groundhog Day was a Jewish movie – Ned Ryerson notwithstanding – until I started thinking about this loop we’re in right now. There’s a sameness to every day, and yet it is most definitely not the same sameness that it was a month ago which tells me that even though it seems like it’s going to be the same next month, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’ll be a different sameness. Like Yom Kippur last year versus the first Yom Kippur service you remember. Certainly both different than the Yom Kippur ahead of us. Same. And very different. The holiday doesn’t really change, but we do. Or the world does.
The Baal Shem Tov, they say, could light a very special kind of sacred fire. When he was troubled, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light that sacred fire, and pray. And each time he did, he found the wisdom he was looking for. His successor, Rabbi Dov Bear, went to the same place in the woods that the Baal Shem Tov went, but Dov Bear didn’t know how to light the sacred fire so he would say, “We can no longer light the fire, but this is the spot and we can still say the prayer.” And in doing so, he also found wisdom. And it was enough. By the time of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, the prayer was also lost. He simply went to the woods, to the same spot, and said, “This place will have to be enough.” And it was. Rabbi Israel of Rishin, no longer knowing the spot in the woods, stayed at home. No fire, no prayer, no place. “Still,” he said, “we can tell the story.” Which he did. And it was enough.
Rabbi Israel of Rishin? Definitely Jewish. He would have liked Lenny Bruce. And he would have loved Groundhog Day which is so careful not to rush headlong into redemptive behavior because … well, how many of us do that? We struggle with the same things today that we struggled with yesterday. That’s what it means to be human. To be Jewish is to be stuck in a loop and aspire to be Bill Murray even if all we can hope for is to be Rabbi Israel of Rishin stuck at home saying, “This will have to be enough.” Rabbi Israel never did master the art of sourdough starter, he did not Marie Kondo his linen closet, and he didn’t even start learning that foreign language he always thought it would be fun to know. But he kept telling the story and you know what? He died in 1850 and we’re still telling his story. He knew what it meant to be human. So does Judaism.
The Talmud says, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Come on, it’s the Talmud, it wasn’t going to tell us to do nothing but Netflix and chill. But it doesn’t expect us to become Bill Murray, just to keep working on being us for as long as we’re in the loop. That seems reasonable to me. And even potentially redemptive.
Michael Greenfield is the Director of Education at Temple Har Shalom in Park City, Utah.