Since its debut in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has remained one of the most beloved of all Broadway shows. Aside from the nine Tony awards it garnered, Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances and, at one time, held the record for longest-running musical. Attributing to both its success and popularity was the fact that it told a story about family struggle, albeit during a time of tsarist oppression of Jews. One of the poignant songs of Fiddler is “Sunrise, Sunset” – a sentimental parental reflection on the growth of the children now about to be married. Time passes too quickly for the nostalgic parents with days and seasons flying by. Probably unbeknownst to lyricist Sheldon Harnick the theme of “Sunrise, Sunset” is embedded in the Midrash.
Citing the book of Ecclesiastes (1:5) “the sun rises and the sun sets,” the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 58:2) wonders why so obvious a fact should have been included in the author’s meditations. Considering that tradition maintains that King Solomon was the author and that he was the wisest of all men, the wonder is trenchant. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana explains that the text is not referring to the daily passage of time but to the passing of the mantle of leadership. God has designed the world so that when one great Jewish leader dies, another is positioned to take his place. For example, the day Rabbi Akiva died, Rabbii Yehudah HaNasi was born. Additional examples follow in the Midrash.
Applying this lesson to the death of Sarah, prominently featured in this portion – even giving the portion its name – Rebecca was born to succeed Sarah. The juxtaposition of texts proves it. Genesis 22 ends with the list of children born to Abraham’s clan, including Rebecca (v.23). Genesis 23 begins with the report of Sarah’s death.
Conceptually, the rabbis were comforted by the fact that for the Jewish people there will always be a leader who will shine brightly at all times. To believe otherwise would suggest that God might forsake His people – a theological impossibility. In times of crisis when Jews today worry about Jewish continuity, we should embrace the idea that every Jewish generation will have its shining exemplar.