Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Having missed out on Jewish school and Jewish camp, I struggle with Hebrew songs—as anyone at last week’s Chabad Shabbat services can attest. But when Rabbi Shemtov requested a solo performance of “If I Were A Rich Man,” I sang at the top of my voice, pleased to show that I can comfortably recite at least of one of our people’s great songs.
And now this week I’m titling my Dvar Torah “Tradition.” I don’t try to see life through the lens of Fiddler on The Roof (FTR), but it is filled with so much wisdom and so many great songs that it is hard to avoid—and it is currently playing here in Washington. Plus, seeing as how FTR is absent from my first seven Divrei Torah, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for your indulgence this one time.
And so we begin…
In the prelude to the Tradition song (found here), Tevye lists several of the traditions held by his town (Anatevka). They have traditions pertaining to food, sleep, work, and clothing. “How did this tradition get started?” Tevye asks himself, and then offers the following, “I don’t know.”
Like most things in Judaism, our traditions originate in the Torah. This week’s Portion establishes some of our most prominent traditions:
Passover: “In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month, in the afternoon, [you shall sacrifice] the Passover offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:5)
Passover cont.: “You shall not eat bread or [flour made from] parched grain or fresh grain…” (Lev. 23: 14)
Rosh Hashanah: “In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion.” (Lev. 23:24)
Yom Kippur: “But on tenth of this seventh month, it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:27)
And so on and so forth…
Despite not knowing the origin of his traditions, Tevye knows their purposes:
The first: “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is.”
Traditions connect the individual Jew to the entire Jewish people, spanning both time and distance. Just as we celebrated Passover in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, so too did Jews in Argentina and Israel; so too did Jews in New York City in 1910.
Our history gives credence to this “unbounded” theory of Judaism. After the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Jews were dispersed throughout Mesopotamia, the Middle East, North Africa, and even into Europe. But physical proximity was not necessary to maintain Jewish peoplehood. The Torah, and its enumerated traditions, gave shape and commonalities to the Jewish people, so much so that by 1200 CE, Jews in Spain exchanged letters on religious thought with Jews in the Middle East.
Tevye’s second answer to the question of “why traditions?” is that “because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.”
If all knowledge of previous civilization suddenly vanished, we might not know when to work, what to eat, when to take seven day vacations, etc. We would, in fact, lose our balance.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. More than 3000 years of human existence has given us a pretty good idea of what works. And if it worked for our mothers and fathers, then it will probably work for us too. Tradition!
If we accept this principle—that wisdom is established over time and moves from generation to generation—then we would be unwise to wantonly abandon the traditions of our ancestors. We might not be able to articulate the logic behind all of our established traditions, but the mere fact that they have existed for so long should cause us to question any revolutionary break lest the questioned tradition be the very foundation for maintaining our existence.
So sing on to Tradition, and enjoy your Shabbos—a tradition that both reaffirms our commitment to Judaism and serves to balance our mental and physical health.