What I learned from Tevye the Milkman

Actor Chaim Topol who famously portrayed Tevye the Milkman, passed away recently at the age of 87.

Growing up in Brooklyn, going to Yeshiva as a young boy, I watched very few movies in my life. One of those few, and by far my favorite, is Fiddler on the Roof. There is so much depth to the storyline and so much emotion in the acting. To be honest, I got emotional watching the scene where Tevya realizes that if he bends any more to accommodate his daughter marrying out of the Jewish faith, he would break.

Recently, Chaim Topol, the actor who charmed generations with his portrayal of Tevye, the charismatic milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, passed away in Tel Aviv at 87 years old.

Even though Chaim starred in more than 30 other movies, he became synonymous with just one role — Tevye the milkman. Over the decades, he played this character over 3,500 times on stages across the globe.

There is a lot we can learn from Tevya.

What makes Tevya so endearing and so unique, was his ability to talk to G-d. Real talk.

He doesn’t just pray to G-d, although we see him do that as well. No, he really talks to G-d. He negotiates with Him. He argues and disagrees with Him.

Tevya’s character is unique because of how he shares every emotion and frustration of his day with G-d. He talks to G-d about his aspirations of wealth and his dreams of a learned son in law.

Even though Tevya is no scholar and can’t explain the reason for most of our traditions, he faithfully carries on. Because he and G-d are on talking terms. Even when his horse can’t walk, they still talk.

It reminds me of Moses who did the same. A short while after the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, G-d sends Moses down from Mt. Sinai because the Jewish people sinned, they made a golden calf, yet Moses does not walk away from the scene. Moses pleads with G-d, he argues with Him, and he engages in intense negotiations for their forgiveness.

There is no other Biblical character that I can think of who has such an advanced sense of closeness and ability to talk with G-d as Moses does.

Many throughout history have prayed and pleaded with G-d. Many have argued and complained. But few are those who can converse with G-d as Moses did.

Few are those who can challenge G-d “Why, Oh L-rd, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt?”

Few are those who can convince G-d it won’t look good to the Egyptians if the Jews die in the desert.

Who can ask G-d how He will answer our forefathers “to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom you said: 'I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens”.

Moses is the one who teaches all future generations of Jewish lawyers and milkmen alike how to talk to G-d – and actually get Him to change His mind and forgive us for our seemingly unforgivable sin.

Like Tevya who loves G-d even after the pogroms ruin their wedding night, Moses is the one who teaches us how to transcend the limitations of a logical relationship with our Creator and invoke G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which can never be revoked.

Like Tevya, Moses is not satisfied with his finite, human understanding of G-d. He begs G-d to fully reveal Himself so that Moses can “see His face” and understand.

Yet, like Tevya, Moses accepts that “no man can see My face and live."

And just like Tevya is always comfortable asking G-d for just “one small favor”, so too Moses teaches us how to never stop demanding more from G-d. Even after the Jews are forgiven, Moses continues challenging G-d to bring the full presence of the Shechina to reside among us.

The only difference I can think of between Moses and Tevya is this:

Moses asks G-d, “If I have found favor in Your eyes… Then I and Your people will be distinguished from every other nation on the face of the earth." Tevya asks G-d “to choose someone else.”

Otherwise, we have a lot to learn from these heroes.

As the Torah tells us: “G-d would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak to his companion”

So would Tevya. He saw G-d as a constant companion throughout every moment of his life.

And so could we.


Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel is the Rabbi at Congregation Beit Tefilah Chabad, and the director of Chabad of Nashville


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