Broken, But Useful

The Ark of the Covenant was central to the religious experience of the ancient Israelites. Placed at the heart of their physical and spiritual community, the Ark accompanied the young nation on their journey, reminding them of God’s presence and protection.

And they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:33)

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the whereabouts of the Ark became a mystery. To this day, several theories abound as to what happened to it. Based on a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, some say it is hidden deep within Mount Nebo, approximately where Moses is said to be buried. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has long claimed to be in possession of the Ark, but won’t let anyone inspect the place where they say it is. The Lemba people of South Africa claim to have it, and there are theories that it is somewhere in England, Ireland, France, the Vatican and even the United States.

Whatever happened to the Ark, we know that it played a major role in the religious lives of the Israelites. Interestingly, according to some of the commentators, including Rashi, it contained the broken pieces of the first set of Tablets which had been collected after the incident of the Golden Calf. Why would the pieces of the shattered tablets have been collected at all, and why should they have been placed in the Ark? Perhaps they were collected because they were not regarded as garbage but as something sacred that shouldn’t be left scattered with the rest of the rocks and debris of the desert. And perhaps they were collected because they had symbolic value, containing lessons that could still be transmitted despite being broken fragments. Here are three such lessons that they may have offered:

    It is possible to fail and then recover. The shattered tablets represented the failure of the Israelites to remain faithful to God, broken promises of fidelity and loyalty to the idea of the covenant with God. Yet, the Israelites’ journey, and relationship with God, continued. They were able to pick themselves up and move forward. So too, we can experience failure, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward.

    Things that seemingly no longer have a purpose still have value. In our society, things that seem obsolete to us are often discarded for what is new and novel. The elderly are often treated as if they have no value and need to tolerated rather than respected. Collecting the broken fragments of the tablets reminds us that things and people still have value even if they are not fulfilling a specific function or purpose.

    Tradition is relevant, not obsolete. Often, Jewish tradition is regarded as a relic of the past, something that doesn’t fit into the times in which we live. We quickly dismiss customs and rituals as having no relevance to our own lives. Perhaps we do so because we do not have sufficient knowledge or experience with those practices. But we should take a second look at traditions that have survived millennia of Jewish living in countries around the globe and be reluctant to dismiss them. True, some traditions have no place in our times. But we should be hesitant to dismiss or overlook the ones that can add meaning to our lives and connect us to our heritage.

The broken fragments of the tablets were carried around for the benefit of the Israelites. The message they offered transcends time and now rests with us.

Why Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms

Despite a dismal Yankee season marked by fading hopes of making the playoffs, I still like to watch the team play. I was watching the Yanks play the Orioles the other night when, absent anything to cheer about coming from my team, I began making a mental list of baseball trivia questions. Why is the third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match?” Why do baseball uniforms have numbers? Why is second base sometimes called the “keystone sack?” And…why do baseball managers wear uniforms when coaches of other professional sports teams (hockey, football, basketball) do not? After all, baseball uniforms are pretty tight fitting and a lot of the managers are middle aged and overweight, so it’s not a very complimentary look. The answer to that last question is that a baseball manager was, at one time in the history of the game, one of the players and had to wear a uniform. Even though managers are no longer active players, they still wear a uniform. You might say it’s a tradition that won’t give way to modern circumstances or realities.

Hmmm…tradition vs. modernity and innovation. Sound familiar? That’s one of the core tensions underlying religion, and Judaism deals with it constantly. For as long as there have been Jews in the world, we have struggled with finding the right balance between tradition and innovation. It’s not a simple choice. Traditions are comforting and reassuring. They connect us to our past, reminding us that we have our place in time and history. We want to know that we come from somewhere, that who we are carries a mark of authenticity that is seasoned and has stood the test of time. I imagine that none of us would wantonly jettison our religious traditions, whether or not we observe them in a committed way. In my work as a Mohel, I make this argument to parents who are ambivalent about holding their son’s bris on the eighth day of life. This is our oldest continuously practiced tradition, I tell them. Do you want to be the first generation to abandon it? Do you want to be part of the reason that it fades away? We could make the same argument about any of our traditions—the second day of the festival as observed in the Diaspora, reading Torah from a handwritten scroll, getting married under a chupah. Our traditions connect us to a vibrant and meaningful past.

Next to that compelling argument in favor of tradition is the equally compelling argument in favor of innovation. We cannot live in the past. We must embrace the times in which we live fully and with creativity and imagination. We must continuously reinvent our way of life or it will become stale and lifeless. That has been our way for centuries. Traditions evolve by necessity; they even fade away, in favor of new practices that speak to us more powerfully and with greater relevance. We have seen the Passover Seder and Haggadah evolve gracefully over time, with new practices and ideas added that give it greater meaning and impact for our lives.

The persistent tension between tradition and change also lies at the core of the ideology of Conservative Judaism. Our denomination was founded on the idea that one could, indeed must, forge a delicate balance between honoring tradition and seeking innovation in Jewish life. It is an honorable and important challenge that we have always faced, and will continue to face. And if Conservative Judaism is to move into the future in a strong position to retain and attract members, it must embrace the challenge to balance tradition with innovation with even greater commitment. We must look carefully at our traditions and talk about their meaning and purpose in our lives. And as we do, we must honor the ideas that change must be slow, not sudden, and must represent a reasonable consensus of concerned members.

I hope and expect that we will embrace this time honored challenge in the year that lies ahead.

P.S. The third game of a series in which each team has won one game called a “rubber match” because the series victory can “bounce” either way. Baseball uniforms have numbers because they were once used to establish the batting order. And second base sometimes called the “keystone sack” because it resembles the keystone that holds an arch together.

“I Don’t Know Why…But It’s a Tradition!”

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before in my nearly 30 years as a rabbi and it felt strange doing it.  On the surface of it, what I did won’t sound strange.  I took the Air Train from JFK to Jamaica Station, then got on the LIRR to Penn Station, and finally took the midtown direct train to South Orange Station.  What made it strange was that it was the final day of Passover, a festival day nearly equivalent in sanctity to Shabbat.  I’m an observant Jew, and I don’t drive or take public transportation on the Sabbath or festivals unless it’s an emergency.  But here I was, wearing my kippah, taking the train to get home from the airport.  What’s more, despite the fact that it was Passover, I even had a bagel on my way home.

How could such aberrant behavior be explained?  The crucial detail you need to know is that I spent Pesach in Israel, where the holiday is celebrated for only seven days and only one Seder is held.  I left Israel on what was the day after Passover for Israelis, though that day—the 22nd of Nisan, April 22nd—was being observed all throughout the Diaspora as the holiday’s eighth and final day.  The addition of an extra day to all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals, called “Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot,” is the result of a calendar quirk that’s centuries old.  Before the creation of reliable time keeping technology, the Jewish calendar was set according to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the New Moon, and an announcement that the Biblical holidays should be observed was sent by signal torch and messengers.  Such testimony was considered reliable only within the borders of the land of Israel, so it was decreed that a second day of the festival should be observed in Jewish communities abroad in case word hadn’t arrived to those places in time to begin observing the holiday.  To this day, “Yom Tov Sheni” is observed even though there is no confusion about the correct day of the holiday anywhere in the world (Reform Jews celebrate only one day of the festivals).  But if a person celebrates the entire holiday in Israel, he is exempt from observing “Yom Tov Sheni” even if he lives outside of Israel.

Why do we still add an extra day to the festivals when the original reason for doing so is obsolete?  After all, we know when the holidays fall each year without the aid of testimony given before a rabbinical court about the appearance of the New Moon.  There are good answers to that question, including the pleasure of celebrating holy days and special times with family and friends.  Just as we look forward to celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, so do traditional Jews look forward to celebrating the Jewish holidays.  Some in the Diaspora even consider themselves especially fortunate to have an extra batch of holidays to celebrate that our Israeli brothers and sisters do not have.  Still, most people would agree that there’s a limit to how many holidays we can celebrate.  While the Jewish holidays are special occasions, it can be difficult and costly to prepare and allocate time for them.

An even better reason for celebrating the second day of the festivals can be summarized by a phrase coined by the Talmudic sages:  “minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands.” In essence, each new generation may question the validity of certain Jewish practices, like celebrating the second festival day or including legumes (kitniyot) in the prohibition of eating chametz on Passover, but there is reluctance to abandon such practices out of a desire to safeguard the decisions and views of our ancestors.  This is more than firmly disagreeing with some religious practice from the past but agreeing to continue it out of respect for previous rabbinic leaders.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu suggests that our ancestors may have had insights that we have not yet grasped and we ought to defer to them out of humility.

The idea that we are maintaining practices and values from the past can be summarized in a single word, perhaps the most important word associated with being Jewish: tradition.  Ask people who practice Judaism why they do what they do and you will likely hear reasons that include theological conviction and personal meaning.  But the number one reason that people practice Judaism is probably tradition- the desire to be a link in a chain and continue what was done in the past.  It’s fair to say that the Passover Seder is, for most people, more about continuing family traditions than it is about the theology of the Haggadah.   As Tevye the Dairyman famously said, “Why do we do these things?  I don’t know…but it’s a tradition!”

Those words aren’t so foolish.  We owe a measure of respect and humility to those who came before us.  Rather than conclude that our ancestors had no idea what they were doing when they enacted customs and practices, we should say that there is something valid in being a link in the transmission of a centuries-old tradition.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…rather than simply dismiss out of hand those practices that we find irrelevant or difficult to understand, we instead should say that maybe our ancestors were onto something when they fashioned the religious practices they did.

Each new generation is faced with the challenge of balancing traditions from the past with sensibilities and insights from the present.  As we make choices about what customs and practices should comprise our Jewish experience, we ought to give substantial weight to the ideas of our ancestors.  If we don’t regard them with care and respect, who will?