"We Didn't Start the Fire"

L’Shana Tovah,

There is so much to talk about in today’s world, so many things that have to do with Jewish philosophy and theology, so many things bombarding us on our phones and computers, in newspapers and on TV. There is just so much to talk about this High Holy Day Season. As you may have read, our theme for this year is “Hear O’Israel;” the idea of really listening, paying attention, understanding what is going on in the world around us, and what it means to us as Jews and human beings. Now, I could say a lot this season, but I thought with our theme about hearing and listening, I’d enlist the help of some music. So let’s get started:

[Plays, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel]

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray,South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television, North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom, Brando, “The King and I” and “The Catcher in the Rye”, Eisenhower, vaccine, England’s got a new queen, Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye

Pretty amazing. Billy Joel released this song in 1989, exactly 30 years ago this year. According to some, “Joel’s concept for ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was to review the major events that had happened during his own lifetime, from his birth in 1949 through the release of the song in 1989. The song is a dizzying kaleidoscope of the headlines over a span of 40 years, then, summing up events in the late Twentieth Century.”

I bet if this song were written in this century, in these last few years, we could come up with some items to put in, couldn’t we? Let me try…

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, gun violence, climate change, socialism, fascism, Medicare for all.

Democrats, Republicans, Proud boys, Charlottesville, hate crimes, New York Times, building up the wall,

Fox News, Brexit fights, Chick-fil-a and gay rights, Amazon, tax evasion, Russia and Ukraine invasion,

Israel, Palestine, Kaepernick, Kavanaugh, Women’s rights, Taliban, black lives matter too man

We didn’t start the fire…

See how well that works? Any generation can do it. Any of one of us could list off the messes of our times. But, my favorite part about Billy Joel’s song is that within the lists of occurrences, good and bad, challenges and disagreements, ups and downs, there’s one thing he doesn’t do. He doesn’t blame anyone. It’s all very nonchalant, just a list of how the world is burning with all kinds of issues, situations, problems, politics, from 1949-1989. In the liner notes of, Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel, Joel “explains that he wrote this song after a conversation with Sean Lennon and a friend. Sean’s friend apparently said that they were growing up in troubling times, thanks in large part to the Baby Boomer generation. Joel’s main message in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is that his generation (the Baby Boomers) also dealt with troubling times that they didn’t necessarily cause.”

I know this game. I’m a Gen Xer and I’ve watched the fight between the Boomers and the Millennials for years now. Books have been written by each generation on the other generation. Assumptions made, stereotypes created. For example, Bruce Cannon Gibney, in his book A Generation of Sociopaths How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, writes:

[The Baby Boomer’s] collective, pathological self-interest derailed a long train of progress, while exacerbating and ignoring existential threats like climate change. The Boomer’s sociopathic need for instant gratification pushed them to equally sociopathic policies causing them to fritter away an enormous inheritance, and when that was exhausted, to mortgage the future. When the consequences became troubling, boomer leadership engaged in concealment and deception in a desperate effort to hold the system together just long enough for their generational constituencies to pass from the scene. The story of the Boomers is, in other words, the story of a generation of sociopaths running amok.


To the baby boomers in our audience, not to worry! The Millienial generation is likewise blamed for everything. According to Morley Winograd, Millenials are even bringing down the NFL:

Many protective mothers and fathers of millennials aren’t allowing their kids to play tackle football because of health risks. These attitudes could close the N.F.L.’s pipeline to many talented players.

More seriously, there are those who believe that “Millennials just need to get their lives together, and you need to straighten them out right away.” Susanne Goldstein recently wrote:

You don’t get a trophy for not getting your work done. You don’t get a trophy when you don’t feel like finishing something. And you certainly don’t get a trophy when you quit. For an entire generation of young adults, this is a very difficult reality to face. The scariest thing about it? They don’t even realize this is a problem.

According to older generations, Millennials are so problematic because they think they should be rewarded for everything. You know, unlike the Baby Boomers who worked for everything they ever had and walked to school in the snow, up hill, both ways. Right?

Millennials are also being accused of destroying the housing market, that they’re going about dating and relationships wrong, that they don’t have job loyalty, that they’re bargain hunters and under-consumers thus destroying the economy.

In truth, it’s easy to find article after article, and book after book, where one person from a generation accuses an entire other generation of single-handedly destroying modern society.

Now, we could go on a hunt for the truth in between all these accusations and try to discover what generations do cause problems, and the things they could have done or not done to prevent things, but instead, let’s listen to what Billy Joel is saying. “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning…” Let’s explore this from a Jewish perspective.

On the one hand, we could say, “Look, I didn’t make this mess. It isn’t my problem.” But that isn’t the Jewish way. Look around the room. How many generations do we have with us this evening? All of us have experienced or are experiencing troubling times, and as easy as it would be to play the blame game, to say your generation did this, or your generation is doing that, maybe as our year begins, we should listen to Billy Joel, and understand that the world has always been broken, always been burning. That instead of playing the blame game, we should realize a constant among humanity, that Joel is picking up on. This idea that the fire has always been burning is quite close to certain Jewish theologies, including most notably, tikkun-ha-olam, from the mystic views of the kabbalist Isaac Luria, of the 16th century. Now, his view, considering it is Kabbalistic, is quite mystical:

God contracted the divine self to make room for creation. Divine light became contained in special vessels, or kelim, some of which shattered and scattered. While most of the light returned to its divine source, some light attached itself to the broken shards. These shards constitute evil and are the basis for the material world; their trapped sparks of light give them power. According to the Lurianic account, the first man, Adam, was intended to restore the divine sparks through mystical exercises, but his sin interfered. As a result, good and evil remained thoroughly mixed in the created world, and human souls (previously contained within Adam’s) also became imprisoned within the shards.

From a mystical view, there has always been evil in this world. We can look beyond the mystical account to see that good and evil have been at war with one another since the beginning of creation, and that this all occurred well before my generation or yours. In fact, it was the first generation, Adam, which disrupted the flow of light and dark, the attempt to collect the broken shards of the spark of the divine. So the world has been broken, in a way that was beyond our control. It’s no one’s fault; it just is. Isn’t that comforting? Or overly depressing?

For fun, let’s take religion completely out of the picture for a moment. What does science have to say on this idea that the world was broken early in its creation and that it still burns with problems? Sir Roger Penrose, a physicist who works with Stephen Hawking, once said:

From the view of modern physics, the entire world can be seen as the manifestation of a broken symmetry. If the symmetries of nature were actually perfect we would not exist. Symmetry, that evenness, orderliness, and sameness in all places, prevented the creation of anything at all. When the universe became irregular, matter and energy came together and became galaxies and stars, eventually creating us. All of this depended on a break in the evenness in which everything began.

In other words, friends, it was the brokenness, the disorder, that created us all in the first place. It has always been with us: brokenness, disruption, or as the Native American Hopi tribe called it koyaanisqatsi, life out of balance. Now, take all of this to what Joel says in his song. “We didn’t start the fire.” He’s saying, “don’t blame us,” and then lists some examples of things his generation encountered. This is perfect advice for how to look at this life out of balance, this broken world, as we begin a new year. Forget the blame game. Forget accusations of one generation to another. They get us absolutely nowhere.

Judaism teaches that the task of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, is everyone’s task. It doesn’t matter if you broke it, it’s your job to work tirelessly to fix it. Judaism is not about “I told you so” or getting a trophy. It’s about leaving the world better than when you found it. It is our task to pick up the shattered pieces of this world to find and create balance to this life. Our theme this year is “Hear, O Israel.” Not “Blame, O Israel.” Not “It’s someone else’s problem, O Israel.” As we embark on this new year together, I hope that we will all “Hear,” that we will harken to the problems of this world, to the brokenness around us, and remember that regardless of who started the fire, it is up to everyone to try to put it out.

L’Shana Tova.