I have a confession to make: I am a serial “upgrader.” I usually try to get the latest Smartphone or computer laptop on the market. The reality is that I probably don’t need the latest device, or even the one with all the “bells and whistles” that I currently have, and I could easily make do using the same devices I own. But living a vibrant Jewish life calls for an ongoing, thoughtful and reflective assessment of how we practice our religion. Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing the daily rituals of Judaism as unappealing and even boring.
We encounter this idea within the Torah portion we’ll read this Shabbat—Beha’alotecha. In chapter 8, we read a straightforward verse: “Aaron did so…he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” The commentaries on the verse do not see the verse as so straightforward. A 19th century Polish rabbi, Meir of Premishlan, seemed to be taken aback by the statement in the Torah that Aaron did as God had commanded Moses. Aaron was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, so why wouldn’t he, of all people, do as God had commanded? Rabbi Meir writes that the verse teaches us that Aaron, despite his ascension to the role of High Priest, remained the man he had been, involved with others, making peace between individuals, remaining true to who he was and fulfilling his daily responsibilities. Regardless of personal success and status, Aaron kept about his daily routine.
The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, 18th century Lithuania) had a different take on the verse. He wrote that the verse teaches that there was no difference between the way he performed the commandment to light the lamp the first time and the way he performed it thereafter for the following 39 years, day after day. The Vilna Gaon credits Aaron with equivalent enthusiasm for the same task and not letting it become a matter of rote to him.
Perhaps that was true for Aaron, but I wonder if it is for the rest of us. While continuity of tradition is an important facet of Jewish life, we also need to be open to new ideas and new ways of experiencing Judaism. Not only do we need to see that Judaism remains relevant in our eyes, helping us to respond to the realities and trends of the times in which we live, but our practice of Judaism needs to grow and change as well. This is true in the arenas of prayer, ritual, holiday celebration and education.
Jewish tradition is a gift to each of us seasoned and sanctioned by time and the experiences of generations who have come before us. But as we embrace our tradition and prepare to pass it on to those who come after us, we should be willing to allow it to grow and change in new and exciting ways. We too can light the lamps, but perhaps we’ll find new and more exciting ways to do so.