Of Fairy Godmothers and Theodor Herzl: Imagining the Impossible

Rosh Hashanah, I Tishrei 5781

When I was growing up, my family had a VHS tape recording of the 1965 version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made for TV Cinderella musical starring Leslie Ann Warren. My younger sister and I used to watch it over and over again, memorizing all the lyrics and staging our own re-enactments. As Cinderella’s fairy godmother sings, “Because these daft and dewey-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, Impossible things are happening everyday.”

Reflecting years later, I realized that Cinderella’s fairy godmother and Theodor Herzl actually have a lot in common in their embrace of the impossible. Herzl, a leader in the Zionist movement in early 20th century Europe, is often quoted for his statement in reference to the goal of establishing a Jewish state: Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah. Usually translated if you will it, it is no dream. More accurately, if you will it, it is no fairytale. To most people in Herzl’s day, the idea of creating a Jewish state would seem about as plausible as Cinderella’s grandmother transforming a pumpkin and mice into a horse-drawn carriage. And yet, a group of people believed so strongly in the idea that they willed it into existence, despite those who said it couldn’t be done.


Our present reality is itself something that would have seemed nearly impossible just a short time ago. 

Over the past several months, I have experienced the feeling of living on a precipice, that just a slight shift in the wind or a tremor could send us off the edge. It is terrifying. 

If you had told me a year ago that there would be a worldwide pandemic that would kill millions of people, force us all to stay home and socially distance for months, and lead to an emerging industry of designer masks, I would have found it difficult to believe. 

The pandemic has created a dramatic rupture, that touches on nearly every aspect of our lives and on the structures and systems that we rely on: The suffering and deaths of millions of people infected with COVID-19, and the mourning of their families and loved ones. The overwhelm of our healthcare system as the infection rate climbs. The exposure of the inadequacy of healthcare insurance and access in this country, and the failure of our leadership to anticipate and respond to this crisis. The impact on supply chains in the early days of the outbreak. The impact on the economy, as millions of Americans were unable to safely work and businesses are forced to close. The exposure of deep social and economic disparities, that leaves those of us who can work remotely and with resources better able to cope and protect ourselves, while others must deal with unemployment or make the decision to put themselves and their families at risk by going back to work in service sector jobs.  

It all sounds like a great set up for a dystopian novel or movie. 

Truth is stranger than fiction

Beginning in my teens I have been drawn to dystopian fiction, or more broadly speculative fiction, dark fantasies of what-if. What if Big Brother is always watching? What if the United States became a theocracy? What if children were trained in the art of war as part of a plan to wipe out an alien race? What if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president? if the box office success of the Hunger Games series and proliferation of adaptations on streaming platforms are any indication, dystopias, and other kinds of speculative storytelling, have increased in popularity in recent years.  As our reality has drawn closer to the worlds these tales envision, it all feels a little too close to home. Perhaps we will lose our appetite for them. But what is it about these kinds of stories that is so compelling to us? What do these stories do for us?

Storytelling allows us to explore and push our boundaries in a way that is safe. When we tell stories, we show a mirror to ourselves and feel out the dangers. We can test out the possibilities for our future and dream of successes, too. Telling stories is also a part of how we make sense of our present and construct our future.

As Jews, we know a lot about the power of stories. Storytelling is central to our tradition as Jews. We are instructed by the Torah – v’higadeta l’vincha – to tell the Passover story to our children every year, to repeat and teach the words of the Torah in the shema. We read the entire Torah over and over again, retelling our sacred story. And Jews were never content to stop with the Torah – over centuries we have developed a rich literature of midrash and legends that continue to revisit and expand on those foundational stories. The Jewish people has always been in a process of creative reimagining. It is not only to preserve or keep the stories alive, but the process of writing those stories has helped us adapt to changing realities and to recreate what it means to be Jewish in different times and places. 

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intimately connected with the storytelling process, in a deeply personal way. In this season of teshuva, or repentance, we look back at the year that has passed and reflect on who we are. We are invited into a process of telling our own stories – where we have been and where we want to go. One of the powerful images of these Days of Awe is of the divine Book of Life open – in the Unetane Tokef prayer, we imagine God reviewing all of our deeds and inscribing us in the Book of Life:

B’rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv-yom tzom kippur yechateimun

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on yom kippur it is sealed. 

In this moment, at the peak of the service, we are filled with a mixture of emotions. The words of these prayers capture our fear and trembling, our uncertainty about what is to come. The anxiety of not knowing is very familiar to us this year, as we have confronted so much uncertainty throughout the last several months – constantly changing information information about the virus and how best to protect ourselves, changing policies, the limits on our ability to plan for the future – whether it is a week, a month, or even a year from now. 

Through this intensive process of teshuva we actually have the possibility of re-writing our story. This time is not only a time of reflection on what has passed; it is also an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities, to reconstruct our stories and to invent a future for ourselves. This is a deeply personal process, but it is also a communal one. Although we are not all in one place this year, we are joining together for prayer and reflection to imagine what could be. We press pause on what is happening outside, to enter into an alternate reality, a laboratory where we can create and experiment and where anything is possible.

We are living in unprecedented times, a time in history of our country, and our world, where the path forward is difficult to discern. We are asking serious questions about the future. Whatever happens, we will be dealing with the long term impact of the pandemic and the questions it has raised for years to come. And with our world so altered, things will almost certainly be different than the way they were. The question is, what future do we want to build? What story do we want to write? 

Imagine for a moment that you are a future historian, writing from the year 2050 about the year 2020 and what came after. What would you say? 

Here’s the story I want to tell: I imagine one of my children writing their doctoral dissertation on the history of the pandemic and what came after: 

The year 2020 was a time of great crisis around the world and in our country. The global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus revealed a number of structural and socioeconomic problems that were lying just below the surface. It became impossible to ignore them any longer. Although the effort to contain the spread of the virus in the United States initially lagged behind the response of other nations, with resulting loss of life and great hardship, the country was brought together around a common purpose. The coronavirus forced a reckoning; the result was the largest effort to expand access to and restructure our healthcare, education, and transportation systems in decades. Forced to innovate in order to address the crisis, we realized that we did not have to take for granted the way things were and that real transformation was possible. Previously we believed that it was impossible to allow workers to work remotely; we found it was not only possible, but also allowed us to do things we never thought possible before. We realized the importance of public health not only to the safety of individuals, but for the wellbeing of the entire nation. We understood that access to the internet was a public good, essential to educate our children and create job opportunities in a global economy. It took time, but the United States emerged from the pandemic with a new identity, an orientation toward focusing on community and strengthening the wellbeing of its citizens. 

Perhaps you think this all sounds hopelessly idealistic and naive. It is easy to fall into despair about the state of the world or to feel powerless. I know I often feel that way. 

I don’t know what is going to happen. None of us do. 

We have an opportunity now to rewrite our story. More than that – we are living through a defining moment in the history of our country and of our world right now, and if we don’t write that story someone else will. 

The Torah does not allow us to be complacent. Jewish teaching challenges us to envision something better – not only for ourselves, but for all people in the societies in which we live. Our tradition demands that we recognize the dignity and worth of every person as created b’tzelem elohim, in the imagine of God. That we have compassion towards the vulnerable in our society. That we provide for the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. That we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. 

The future is in our hands. If we want something different, if we are committed and serious about our values as Jews, we have to be active participants in envisioning and rewriting the story. 

Don’t let the thought that something seems crazy or impossible paralyze you. What world do you want to live in 10 years from now? 20 or 30 years from now? What world do you want your children to live in? What would it take to make that happen? What action can you take now to make that story a reality? Can you find other people who are committed to working for that vision and join with them?

One of the messages of Rosh Hashanah and this season of Teshuva is that we have the ability to transform our destiny. We say during our prayers: 

U’Teshuva  ut’fillah utz’dakah ma’avirim et roa hagezeirah – that teshuva, prayer, and giving of ourselves have the ability to avert the harshness of the decree. 

We can make the impossible possible. 

Let’s write our own story and make it come true.