top of page

A Blessing for the Tsar?

by Steve Orr scripture reflection)


The Tsar blamed the Jews. 


In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the story takes place in Russia during the early 1900s, a tumultuous time in that nation’s history. There were many problems: poverty, hunger, illness, and death. Russia’s ruler was known as the Tsar; that’s the Russian way of saying “Caesar.” And like the Caesars of the Roman Empire, the Tsar was the highest power in his empire. He and his family lived in palaces, had every luxury, were never hungry or without medical care. 


Due in part to the widening gap between the way the royals lived and the way everyone else lived, revolutionary forces were stirring about the land. We now know those revolutionaries would eventually overthrow the royals and institute communist rule. But at the time of Fiddler on the Roof, in hopes of heading off that revolution, the Tsar sought a way to deflect the people’s anger from himself.


The Tsar needed a scapegoat.


So, the Tsar blamed the Jews. He made their lives hard, forcing families to uproot and relocate to less desirable places in the east—many of those places are in what we now call Ukraine. The Jews suffering under these conditions were powerless to change them. Such powerlessness inevitably leads to anger. The Tsar had created a powder keg. 


Next time you see the musical, keep this background in mind. It helps explain so many of the scenes. For example: As the elderly rabbi comes through the small village of Anatevka, he is asked by the people: “Is there a proper blessing for the Tsar?” What is not said, but is clearly implied: Is there a blessing even for the Tsar?! They can’t imagine how someone who has treated them so evilly could qualify for a blessing from God. It’s a loaded question. 


The rabbi could just say “No” or nothing at all. Knowing the mood of his congregation, and knowing that bad things might result from a negative reply, that rabbi wisely chose to respond with humor. His reply always gets a laugh from the audience: “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar ... far away from us!” 


A rabbi in Israel might well have said the same kind of thing if asked about a blessing for Caesar in Jesus’ day. The situation was not

unlike that of the poor Russian Jews living in Anatevka two-thousand years later. Most Israelites viewed Caesar as an oppressor, and many groups of zealots plotted revolution. Jesus was well aware that Rome might consider Him an enemy of the state. After all, He had called at least one known zealot, Simon, to join His original twelve apostles. 


All of this leads us to consider a strange command Jesus gave in this week’s Mark passage. After a transformative mountaintop experience, Jesus warned the three apostles who were with Him “to tell no one about what they had seen.” 


What had Peter, James, and John seen? 


They saw Jesus meeting with Moses, the founding leader of Israel, its first prophet and first judge. Even more to the point, with God’s help, Moses had led a successful revolution: He led the Israelites out of bondage to the Tsar of that age, the Pharaoh of Egypt. In Jesus’ time, Moses would be the “poster boy” for zealots wishing to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. 


They also saw Jesus talking with Elijah, the “super” prophet of Israel’s history, who had stood up to an evil king and queen who worshipped a false god. As you can see in this week’s passage from 2 Kings, Elijah’s presence was considered essential to Israel’s protection against its enemies. When he was whisked away by the fiery chariot, his disciple despaired for what would befall Israel’s army with Elijah gone. 


Meanwhile, they had to travel down from their mountaintop experience to rejoin everyone else who had been living the usual mountain-bottom experiences. Many of those at the bottom, chafing under Roman rule, were wondering if Jesus might be the one who would overthrow Caesar.


Jesus warned His three disciples not to tell what they had seen until after He was raised from the dead. They didn’t understand that last part, but they kept silent. Telling those at the bottom of the mountain who Jesus met on the top of the mountain could be incendiary. 


What happened on the mountaintop needed to stay on the mountaintop—at least for the time being. 


bottom of page