Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – HA’AZINU
We are who we are, only because of those who came before us. How much smarter do our parents become as we get older? My father has been gone 30 plus years. I am amazed at how much smarter he is now than he was when he died.
Our ancestors are our backbone; our living Torah. As we move forward in time, we may move past the years of their lives, but never past the value of their lives. We know this truth and celebrate it.
In these last chapters of the Torah, Moses gives us his final instructions, “Ask your father and he will tell you; question your elders, and they will respond” (Deut. 32:7).
We are supposed to learn from those who walked our path long before we even were. In our prayer service, we invoke the memory of our biblical ancestors, remembering the shoulders upon which we stand. Throughout the year, we hold special remembrances for those who have left their earthly course. We revere our ancestors. We learn from their lives. We continue their teachings. We are simply a part of the chain of transmission of God’s work.
That said, revering and honoring do not necessarily mandate, blind obedience.
In Pirke Avot (Mishnah) we learn about how Israel passed Torah through generations. Moses gets it at Sinai and passes it to Joshua. He transmits it to the elders who then transmitted it to the prophets and then to the men of the great assembly. The chain continues. Each generation, though, taught something different about the essence of the Torah they inherited.
The past cannot have a mandate on tomorrow. Even while our sociology may not change, our circumstances, cultures and settings most certainly do. We know that 3-5 years is an entire generation in educational modality relevance. If a teacher is teaching the same lesson plan over ten years, he/she is 3 generations out of date. We know so much more about history than we did. 100 years ago, a physics class would look radically different than it does today.
It is not, however, all or nothing. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan taught us that the past has a vote, but not a veto. If we do not know where we have been, we cannot know where we are going. In our current world, we have people either stuck completely in yesterday and others who seek to completely obliterate it. There has to be an open conversation so that we can learn from yesterday, and yesterday can yield to tomorrow unafraid of both being forgotten and of having us ignore the valuable lessons that will keep us from making their mistakes over again.
We are blessed to be immortal in this way. What we have to offer will never die. We owe it to all who came before us: we must forget and still we must grow. From our tradition comes this midrash:
“Atop Sinai, Moses saw God tying crowns to certain letters in the Torah. He asked, “God, why are You adding these crowns?” God replied: “A man named Akiva will appear a few generations from now. He will explain each thorn on these letters and will generate mountains of laws from them.” Moses said: “Please let me see him.” God answered: “Turn around.” Moses found himself in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s academy. He could not understand what the others were saying; this saddened him greatly. When Akiva reached a certain item, his students asked, “Rabbi, how did you know?” He answered: “My source? Moses received this Torah at Mount Sinai and passed it on down to us.”
What we do matters, not just to us, but to the future. At the same time, we need to let tomorrow’s leaders lead. Harriett Rose just turned 100 years old. Every Friday she would tell me how much she hated the prayer book, the music, and the “new” rituals. She then thanked me for doing it all, since the synagogue she helped build continued to grow and thrive. God bless the Harriett Rose’s of our world! We can learn a great deal.