Counting the Omer: The beauty of live theater

pic for omer

Count the omer and explore the attribute of tiferet, beauty, by witnessing the power of live theater at our production of The Fiery Furnace, Sunday May 4 at 4 pm at RS.

We are staging an original musical right here in this sanctuary on Sunday, May 4. The Fiery Furnace: A New Rock Musical was written for us and directed by John Rea, the director of MacGuffin Theater and Film Company here in Center City, and it features 30 of our Mercaz Limud students ages 5-15.

The story is based on an episode from the book of Daniel. It features big characters, heroic and brave acts, passionate proclamations of faith, and, best of all, dreams and visions. It lends itself so easily to a larger than life musical in the tradition of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (and wait until you see some of the costumes).

The book of Daniel is considered our tradition’s apocalyptic literature, meaning stories that feature revelations of future events and the end of days communicated by otherworldly beings. Angels, diviners, wonderful stuff…though easy to dismiss, perhaps, as fantasy. I would guess that most of us know little and have studied little about this book. The story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den might ring a few bells, but few of us have looked closely at the visions, the symbols, and the message behind this fantastical, apocalyptic collection of stories.

For there is a very specific message behind these symbols. Each wild image represents something particular, and taken together, the images tell a story and convey a message. In the episode of The Fiery Furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar has an unsettling dream. The only person, diviner, willing to try to interpret that dream is Daniel, an Israelite serving in the Babylonian king’s court. Daniel described the King’s dream this way:

“O king, as you looked on, there appeared a great statue. This statue, which was huge and it brightness surpassing, stood before you, and its appearance was awesome. The head of that statue was of fine gold; its breast and arms were of silver; its belly and thighs, of bronze; its legs were of iron, and its feet part iron and part clay. As you looked on, a stone was hewn out, not by hands, and struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. All at once, the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were crushed, and became like chaff of the threshing floors of summer; a wind carried them off until no trace of them was left. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

Daniel goes on to explain that King Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold, and that subsequent kings are the other parts of the body of this huge statue. This dream was entirely intended to be an allegory of actual historical events. The historical picture is not completely accurate, but after the head of gold of the Babylonian king came the chest and arms of the king of Media, then the belly and hips of the king of Persia, then the legs of the King of Greece, and the two different materials of those legs and feet represent the divided Greek kingdom. King after king defeated one another and rose to prominence, but what King outlasted them all to the end of days, was powerful enough to crush the statue and all of its limbs to chaff and carry them off in the wind? Only God’s community will outlast each political leader and triumph in the end, no matter the persecution the Jews face under each regime.

This message was critical to the Jews of this period of exile, specifically living, as we believe the author of the book of Daniel did, in the time of the reign of Antiochus, who famously restricted Jewish practice in Jerusalem and faced the rebellion of the Hasmoneans, the Maccabbees.

This book tells wonderful, vivid stories in symbols. And most of us never read these stories and explore this method of communication. I think our trouble lies in the message these symbols are serving.

We certainly spend a lot of time talking about and teaching about symbols. We just spent weeks in our Mercaz Limud and other venues exploring the symbols of the seder plate in our celebration of Passover. We talk about what each object on the seder plate is meant to represent, what image each symbol is supposed to bring to mind and to make us feel. We spend so much time on those symbols, found at the very beginning of our Haggadah and our seder, and little to no time on the medieval poem or song Chad Gadya, found at the end of the Haggadah. Chad Gadya is rich in symbolism like the symbolism of the book of Daniel, where each successive character represents some other important event or force in history, and the poem comes to the same conclusion as King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in The Fiery Furnace: God is greater than all the forces of the world put together.

I suspect that the rational nature of the origins of Reform Judaism influenced our hesitance to engage and explore the more fanciful texts of our tradition. And concrete symbols are easier to teach our children, they are more accessible, they reflect the themes of each holiday more directly, and it make sense to focus on these in our school. But what about the less accessible themes of our tradition? What about the central tenet we ascribe to, that God is one, God is greater than any other force in the world? The author of the book of Daniel possessed a certainty of belief in God that many of us don’t share.

It’s time to open up these books and this literary tradition in our heritage again. Because how better to grapple with what we really believe than through the dreams and visions, the dramatic, the fantasy? Concrete symbols, easily understood feelings and images, won’t help all of us look deeper to our relationship with the statement God is our God, God is One. For some of us, we have to release the rational and fall into the spell of the fantasy to confront the question of what we believe.

Part of the exercise of the RS Youth Theater is, through the cover of theater, to explore what we can uncover: the books in our canon we haven’t studied and the ideas we haven’t confronted. Both we and our children can unlock the literary, theatrical, fanciful parts of our nature, of human nature, that tell stories in visions and symbols and see how they inform our experience of Judaism and Judaism’s biggest questions.

I hope you will join us for this theatrical event Sunday May 4 at 4 pm. May the wonder of the larger than life musical allow insight into our larger than life beliefs.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with sacred actions and enjoins us to count the omer.

Hayom shishah asar yom, shehem shnei shavuot ushnei yamim la-omer. Today is 16 days which are two weeks and two days of the Omer.

Wishing you a meaningful omer– Your RS Clergy