Tzav: Time to Change?

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Excitement and consistency: We tend to view these terms as contradictory. Man gets excited over discovering new things and views variety as the spice of life. Modern man is bored with a consistent routine and eschews the seeming monotony that accompanies lack of change. It is the new and exciting that we seek. Even investors find the “old economy” boring and are willing to pour billions of dollars into new and untested, but “exciting” companies. Yet Judaism demands that we both get excited about our Judaism while at the same time being faithful to a consistent routine that often does not change much from day to day, month to month and year to year.

“Today G-d your Lord is commanding you to obey all these rules and laws. You must carefully keep them with all your heart and with all your soul (Devarim 26:16).” Though the Torah was given well over three thousand years ago we are to relate to Torah each day anew, as if we have just received it from Sinai. Torah must remain constantly new and exciting. Yet our tradition is anything but new, dating back to Sinai where a band of slaves accepted the Torah on our behalf. Change, new approaches must by be assimilated slowly and with great care. We take great pride in following in the ways of our ancestors. We cling to minhagim, the traditions of those who came before us often (mistakenly) more so than to actual halacha, and often long after the rational for them no longer applies [1]. Halacha itself seems to limit new and exciting approaches to G-d. We must daven daily at fixed times, our patterns of speech, eating, even sleeping are all regulated by Jewish law.

How does one reconcile the notion of a new and exciting Judaism with a tradition going back four thousand years? And reconcile it we must. “There shall be a constant fire kept burning on the altar, without being extinguished” (Vayikra 6:6). Judaism demands that the fire, the excitement of Torah must never be extinguished though it is burning constantly.

Perhaps unlike modern hedonistic society Judaism sees excitement davka in being heir to a tradition dating back thousands of years. It is exciting knowing that people have sat at the Seder tables using the same haggadot for thousands of years or that a Jew walking into any traditional shul in the world will feel at home. Judaism sees the routine, sees the observance of Halacha as exciting. Even though many may feel the urge to update our traditions to make them more relevant to their lives, Judaism says that such tampering, while stemming from admirable motives, must be handled with caution. Otherwise one is likely to get burned. Human fashions and interests change from day to day but human nature has not changed one iota since the creation of man. And since the Torah is a guidebook for human behaviour it is its constancy and consistency that is so exciting and relevant.

While the Torah is our handbook to daily living, applying its rules to a constantly changing world takes much effort and originality. New discoveries in science, psychology and medicine, new political realities, differing economic systems require new insights from our Torah. Just as scientific discoveries are not truly inventions but rather discoveries of and applications of the laws of nature that have always existed, so too new vistas for the application of Torah are just discoveries of truths that have always existed. The chiddushim, new insights, of scholars, our Sages teach us were actually revealed to Moshe at Sinai. The mechanism has always existed, it is the modern sage who discovers it and knows how and when to apply it. Innovation is inherent to our tradition. Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern day Palestine, stressed that we must renew the old and sanctify the new. The application of an ancient system to a modern world is truly exciting. Excitement and consistency truly can exist together.

[1] Unlike law, minhagim generally, at least in theory, need no formal mechanism to be modified and once the reasoning for a minhag no longer exists it need not be observed.