A Profound Human Need

by Saul Levine April 3, 2017


footprint-aprilWho doesn’t love Tevya? I’m referring of course to the beloved and beleaguered hero of “Fiddler on the Roof.” When Tevya sings the wonderful signature song “Tradition,” he brings down the house because we recognize ourselves in the evocative music and powerful lyrics.

In “Tradition,” Tevya plaintively expresses his plight to himself, to us and to G-d. He barely ekes out a living as a milkman in his shtetl Anatevka, but it isn’t poverty which plagues him as much as trying to cope with the bewildering changes in his life.

In addition to domestic and work challenges, he is beset by threatening winds of social change: Violent anti-Semitism in Russia is rearing its ugly head, one daughter wants to marry a non-Jewish Cossack, and another is emigrating to America. Tevya is overwhelmed.

He cherishes his personal and religious traditions with reverence, but there’s a palpable desperation in his pleas: He’s holding on to them for dear life.

Traditions, it turns out, are Tevya’s lifeline.

We need our traditions as well. I’m certainly not equating our circumstances to Tevya’s, but we do lead complicated inner and outer lives. In addition to the usual pleasures and challenges of family, work, and finances, many people nowadays are feeling unsettled and anxious in the current news climate: Our political system is in some disarray, national and international threats abound, and invective, rage and fear permeate our media and lives.

Thus we try to cope by bringing a semblance of order and predictability to our existence – even some serenity, if possible. This is seldom an easy task, but it’s especially challenging when in addition to personal tzoress, our world appears to be in turmoil.

We humans are a remarkably social species, and traditions help bring us together. These provide us with experiences of shared values and mutual comfort. They also offer us time for reflection and relaxation, and relief from the pressures of our daily lives.

All religions have traditions which enable us to accomplish these goals: Seders, Shabbat meals, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Ramadan observances, Tet celebrations, festivals, prayers, atonements and countless other religious occasions held regularly around the globe. Similarly, non-religious, ethnic, cultural, family and other secular groups have traditions and rituals which foster communing and camaraderie, and enhance our quality of life.

When traditions take place on a regular basis, they bring predictability and constancy to our lives. We get reassurance that we will indeed be all right.

Traditions fulfill important criteria for achieving the “Four B’s:”

Being refers to being able to appreciate ourselves and our strengths, and feel grounded in spite of our frailties and foibles.

Belonging covers our personal comfort in knowing that we’re an integral part of some group(s), where we are respected and appreciated, perhaps loved by others.

Believing means that we have a set of “higher” (i.e., non-material) principles and values by which we lead our lives, which can be religious or secular rules of ethical behavior.

Benevolence refers to the extent to which we enhance the lives of others – be they family, friends, or strangers.

Without traditions, it is difficult to fulfill our profound human needs for affiliation and communing, and as a result we are more often alone, and feel alienated and demoralized, especially in times of uncertainty and jeopardy.

Tevya learned that his cultural traditions could not “guarantee“ paths to stability and serenity, since unpleasant realities can intervene. But with his traditions embracing family and friends and his cherished and shared traditions, he was better able to weather the storms of ominous change with insight, wisdom, and even humor.

So it is with all of us.


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