A Need for Our Traditions: Always a Comfort, Occasionally a Salve, Sometimes a Lifeline

We all need our traditions.

When the song ”Tradition” is sung by “Tevya,” the beloved and beleaguered milkman hero of “Fiddler on the Roof,” he brings the house down. The stirring musical has been performed in different languages and cultures, yet all audiences recognize themselves in the evocative music and lyrics.

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

He is beset by winds of social change which threaten his comfortable traditions: Violent anti-Semitism in Russia, a daughter wanting to marry a non-Jewish Cossack, and another 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.

I’m certainly not equating our circumstances to Tevya’s, but we do lead complicated inner and outer lives: Along with personal pleasures and rewards, we experience challenges of family, work, social and financial pressures.

In addition, many people 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.

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 problems, our world appears to be in uncomfortable turmoil.

We humans are a remarkably social species, and traditions help bring us together. Whenever families and friends have lived in communities, we have adopted group rituals and customs which strengthen our bonds with each other.

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 are 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 (festschrifts, civil weddings, graduations, etc).

When traditions take place on a regular basis, they bring predictability and constancy to our lives. In addition to the nurturance and pleasure of communing, they help remove us, at least temporarily, from the cacophony of the outside world. We get reassurance that we will indeed be all right.

Traditions fulfill important criteria for achieving the “Four B’s,” our senses of Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence.

Being refers to appreciating ourselves and our strengths, and feeling grounded in our core identity in spite of our frailties and foibles.

Believing means that we have a set of “higher” (ie, 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 – and leave a “Positive Emotional Footprint.”

Without traditions, it is difficult to fulfill our profound human needs for affiliation and communing. 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 change with insight, wisdom, and even humor.

So it is with all of us…

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