Rosh Hashanah II 5782: The Wellerman

Those of you who tuned in yesterday will recall that I gave the first of a two part sermon. Yesterday, I spoke about transforming our doubt into possibility. The sermon was presented in honor of Connie Waxman, of blessed memory, and all of our members who passed just before and during these pandemic months. I concluded my words yesterday with a song. I hope you’ll join me in keeping the beat for another song as we consider the possibilities that come from our conquering doubt…

There once was a ship that put to sea

The name of the ship was the Billy of Tea

The winds blew up, her bow dipped down

Oh blow, my bully boys, blow (huh)

Soon may the Wellerman come

To bring us sugar and tea and rum

One day, when the tonguing is done

We’ll take our leave and go

She’d not been two weeks from shore

When down on her a right whale bore

The captain called all hands and swore

He’d take that whale in tow (huh)

Soon may the Wellerman come

To bring us sugar and tea and rum

One day, when the tonguing is done

We’ll take our leave and go…

By a show of hands, how many of you are familiar with the song I just sang? (Pause) The song is called, “Soon May the Wellerman Come”. It is a 19th Century sea shanty popular among the whalers of New Zealand at the time. In 1830, the Weller Brothers, a Sydney-based company, set up a whaling station on Otago Harbor in New Zealand. The company became substantial merchant traders. In the song, the men of the whaling station await supply ships that would provide them with provisions while they capture and harvest whale oil and eventually take their shore leave. The remaining stanzas of the ballad are not as cheerful as the tune. After losing four ships, the captain and crew continue to wait for their catch, their payment, and their leave. I won’t dive into the harsh history of the whaling industry. Unfortunately, it was not until 1986 that the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling due to the extreme depletion of stock.

The Wellerman song became a hugely popular meme this past winter. A man named Nathan Evans had a viral TikTok post that featured him singing the song in his thick Scottish brogue.  Evans now enjoys 1.4 million TikTok followers. At 26 years old, he quit his job as a mail carrier to pursue his music career. His dance version of the Wellerman peaked at No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart in addition to charting in several other countries. This is astounding considering the song was all but lost until 1965 when it was collected by New Zealand folklorist, Neil Colquhoun. Colquhoun published the song in 1972. While it was recorded nearly twenty times since then, it is now known to TikTok’s 1.1 Billion monthly users.

This is a perfect example of the power of the meme. Today, a meme generally refers to a picture or video posted on social media that is shared repeatedly until it becomes ubiquitous and widely recognized. Nathan Evans shared his version of the Wellerman song last December. It has been liked 2.3 million times, shared 130,000 times, and commented on 34,500 times. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that over 66,000 people have posted videos innovating upon Evans’ original. Other TikTok users added additional voice parts, percussion, instrumentals, dance moves, and more. Each of these adaptations brings more attention to the original. Even the Jewish internet got on board with the Wellerman craze. A group of Conservative cantors created a version with the words to The Song of the Sea for parshat Beshallach. There are other Purim-themed shanties that were released shortly after. For Passover, the acapella group Six13 even came out with, “The Red Sea Shanty: A Pirate Passover.”

While the word meme has enjoyed a comeback in the 21st Century, the concept is far from new. First used at some point in the 16th Century, the word’s Greek root gives us such words as mime and mimic. However, I would argue that our sages gave us the first meme over 2000 years ago. To paraphrase the very first Mishnah in Tractate Avot, “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and e-mailed it to Joshua. Joshua liked it so much he showed it to the elders. The elders thought it was great too, so they texted it to the Prophets. The Prophets blabbed it all over Facebook, where the Men of the Great Assembly got ahold of it.” As the chapter continues, a number of our greatest sages not only receive the Torah, but add their voice. Those sages impart their wisdom in the same way subsequent TikTokers added layers to the Wellerman meme. Shimon the Righteous adds, “The world stands on Torah, service, and acts of lovingkindness.” Hillel adds, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” As important as the words of Torah are themselves, these aphorisms give Torah new life as each generation reinterprets them.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses reads the entire Torah to us and we respond, “Na’aseh ve-nishmah.” Our sages spilled much ink trying to understand these words. Our JPS translation understands this verse according to the understanding of Rabbi Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a 15th Century Italian rabbi, philosopher, and physician. Sforno understands the phrase, Na’aseh ve-nishmah as a hendiadys, two words paired together to express a single idea. According to Sforno, we should translate Na’aseh ve-nishmah as, “we will faithfully do.” I dislike this translation. It minimizes the importance of process and leaves out the possibility of multiple outcomes. Na’aseh ve-nishmah does not mean that we will follow blindly. On the contrary it means that we will see with wide open eyes, heart, and mind. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks understood the latter half of our phrase to mean, “We will understand in our own way.” Each of us may have had the same book read to us, but we will process it differently.

In 1890, William Stewart Halsted became the first Chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Halsted transformed surgical education by creating the residency program. Prior to that time, there was no formal training system in the United States for medical students interested in becoming surgeons. Surgeons either self-trained or learned via apprenticeship. Halsted’s model was, “see one, do one, teach one”. Through this model, a student acquired increasing amounts of responsibility that culminated in near independence. If it was not for his students using that independence to experiment and innovate, consider the advancements we may have missed over the past century. This, too, is why memetic learning is so powerful. Identical photocopies only last so long. As you continue to make a copy of a copy the originals wear out and the copies get fuzzy. When we make room for renewal, we end up with outcomes that are richer, more relevant, and more meaningful.

Jews learn many rituals mimetically. Take Shabbat candle lighting as an example. There is no place in the Torah or Talmud that teaches us how we are to light the candles. I doubt any of you have ever taken a class to learn how. Rather, in all likelihood you witnessed a grandparent, parent, partner, or friend as they lit candles and you later repeated their actions. This is how you knew to light prior to reciting the blessing and to cover your eyes. Or maybe you saw Fiddler on the Roof and were attracted to that ritual moment as an opportunity to pray for those closest to you. I recall a wonderful scene in Maggie Anton’s novel, “Rashi’s Daughters” where Rashi’s daughter Jocheved lights the Shabbat lamp in front of her husband, Meir, who himself was a wise student. Meir noticed that Jocheved was praying after she lit the lamp, but could not make out her words. When she finished, he inquired. Jocheved is surprised that her wise husband was unaware of the ritual. He did not recall his mother ever praying after lighting the Shabbat lamp. Jocheved assumed the blessing came from the Talmud, but wasn’t sure. The pair agreed to ask Rashi himself. To their surprise, Rashi didn’t recall having seen the Shabbat blessing anywhere in the Talmud. He agreed to investigate the issue. The vignette ends with Rashi reporting his findings and the men coming to the realization that they had never conceived that other Jewish women did it differently from the way their mothers did.

This reminds me of the well-known joke about a young Jewish mother who is preparing a brisket one Friday for Shabbat dinner. Her daughter watches with interest as the mother slices off the ends of the brisket before placing it in the roasting pan. The young girl asks her mother why she did this. The mother pauses for a moment and then says, “You know, I am not sure…this is the way I always saw my mother make a brisket. Let’s call Grandma and ask her. “She phones the grandmother and asks why they always slice the ends off the brisket before roasting. The grandmother thinks for a moment and then says, “You know, I am not sure why, this is the way I always saw my mother make a brisket.” Now the two women are very curious, so they pay a visit to the great-grandmother in the nursing home. “You know when we make a brisket,” they explain, “we always slice off the ends before roasting. Why is that?” “I don’t know why you do it” says the old woman, “but I never had a pan that was large enough!”

So many of the traditions we hold dear were once novel attempts at solving a problem or infusing a moment with meaning. I once had the honor of learning with Rabbi Professor Vanessa Ochs, author of the book, “Inventing Jewish Rituals.” She invited those of us present to imagine being at the first Passover Seder where the leader considered hiding the afikoman in order to keep the children engaged. Or, where the children stole the afikoman and held it ransom as the adults in the room anxiously waited to finish the ritual. How many years was it before this silly ritual became canonized in the Haggadah and until great sages came up with heavy theological meanings to attach to the ritual?

In March of 2020, Rabbi Professor Ochs was quoted in Moment Magazine’s haggadah supplement called, “The Seder Is Already Virtual.” She wrote:

We travel to the past, and then to the future. We enact and imagine slavery and its privations. We might feel it when we break the Afikoman—the way a starving slave might break the matzah and put half of it away for later… Afterwards, we enact freedom, drinking and feasting and singing. And we open the door for Elijah, a thoroughly virtual personage none of us has ever seen—a person whose defining characteristic is that he isn’t there. None of it is the “authentic” Passover that was celebrated in biblical times. And even that “authentic” Passover was a symbolic reenactment of the events themselves. Because the seder is so real to us, I think we forget it was a stand-in for something much more real.

Rabbi Professor Ochs goes on to say that Passover, like many of our holidays, has always been virtual. Our rituals serve to jumpstart our imaginations. She continues:  

Passover, from its first appearance in the Torah—the night of the actual Passover in Egypt—has been a holiday that’s been virtual, if we define that as existing in the mind, in the imagination. On that very first Passover night, as the enslaved Israelites were told to use the blood of their slaughtered lambs to make a sign on their houses, they were also told to imagine that for all time to come, they would be telling the story of their liberation, which had not even happened yet. And how much more imagination was called forth when generations later, the tribes of Israel would bring lambs to the Temple to please God? And when pilgrimage and Temple sacrifice were no longer possible, it required an active imagination to imagine a symbolic service.

When the Pandemic began, our congregation immediately utilized Zoom to connect with one another virtually. The reality is that we were experts at virtual life well before the pandemic started. Our bitter herbs and salt water are a virtual placeholder for the unimaginable pain of slavery. The shank bone reminds us of the Passover offering which reminds us of the blood our ancestors smeared on their lintels. When we consider our holiday rituals, we think of them as authentic. In truth, they are substitutes, innovations to help us remember even earlier times.

All of the rituals that we take for granted as meaningful aspects of Jewish living are memes, originals that have been copied as they passed from generation to generation. With the destruction of the First Temple over two and a half millennia ago, our sages reinvented, they renewed, they innovated, until they reached something that looked kind of like how we do Jewish today.  Whenever there have been moments of upheaval in Jewish life, we have engaged with this process. Hasidism was a conscious reaction against the messianic excesses of the followers of false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi. The mystical tradition of the Rabbi’s of 16th Century Tzefat was a direct outgrowth of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Every single person in this room is a product of the sweeping changes to Jewish life that followed the Shoah and eventually the establishment of the State of Israel. After these High Holy Days, our congregation will adopt the Conservative Movement’s new siddur, Lev Shalem. This wonderful tool for Divine connection through prayer is a far cry from the first siddur compiled just over a thousand years ago. One of the reasons our community does not have a Hebrew School is because we recognize the superior value of inviting our children to mimic the Jewish values we model for them in shul and at home. Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but more importantly, it is a powerful educational tool.

If we Jews know anything, it is that out of catastrophe comes the opportunity for great creativity. The past eighteen months brought an unprecedented amount of opportunities for us to invent and reinvent Jewish rituals. Without a doubt, many of the innovations of this pandemic will remain significant decades from now. Similarly, it is difficult to say why the Wellerman caught on the way that it did over the past eight months. It might be a catchy tune, or perhaps the notion of being in isolation on a ship in a dangerous storm and longing to be somewhere else is more relatable now than ever. Eight months ago, Nathan Evans was a Scottish mail carrier. Just one month after posting his Wellerman video, Evans told fans on TikTok, “I was a postman on Friday. I have just signed to the biggest record label in the world.” While a viral life-changing meme might not be within reach for all of us, I do think there is important Torah to learn at the intersection of Jewish renewal and Evans’ story.

On Rosh Hashanah we sanctify the anniversary of the Holy One’s creation of the universe. Yet, the universe we inhabit is vastly different from the one God created. Today is a day when we move on from our doubts and envision our next steps. How do we take the steps we need to take to get where we ultimately want to be? When we consider that the seeds we plant now, our inventions and innovations, will bear fruit well beyond our lifetimes, what is it that we need to do right now? How might these change us, our families, our community, and our world? Hayom Harat Olam. This is the day of the world’s conception. Let us take the opportunity to conceive the possibilities that lay before us. May we be open to birthing new learning that future generations will receive. While this is the point when we might typically expect a sermon to end, I would like to remind you that today is just the beginning.

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