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For Your Shabbat Table

Tradition Vs. Traditionalism

Tradition, quotes Jonathan Sacks, is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism, he differentiates, is the dead faith of the living. And having delivered this obscure turn of phrase, he explains: Traditionalism is by definition conservative, nostalgic (kasha varnishkes, chopped liver). Tradition is forging a link, expressing the passion of those who passed the torch on to you.

My grandmother from Pittsburgh would cook the Shabbos chicken soup on Thursdays. On Friday she would take the soup vegetables; carrots, sweet potato, and zucchini, mash them with eggs and matzo meal and fill the entire frying pan with an oversized latke. We weren't allowed to eat it before the Shabbos meal: we nibbled it instead and I never remember there being even half of it left by nightfall.

At a family bar mitzvah I asked some cousins if they had the recipe. All of us have tried it, I was told, and no one has gotten the recipe right. A simple little nothing of a kugel and no one could get it right. It went with Bubbie to the Mount of Olives.

I grew up after Fiddler on the Roof was a surprise hit, when ethnic roots were just getting "IN" and Delancy Street was becoming a Jewish icon. To many, my family was a living relic, borsht and tzimmes in a bottle and brought to your doorstep. I remember a clear rebellion against being pigeon holed into a place we didn't want to go and we were never looking for.

Bubbie was not nostalgia. She was very much my doing homework and getting the groceries. Pictures of all the grandkids were in her milchige "china closet" but nothing about her was ever placed on a doily covered pedestal.

She had fought all the Russian bureaucracies of the early Twenties to get her and her bashert into Palestine. She lived in the back of a stable on a moshav, and the women moshavniks were jealous that she was always singing when she worked. She came to America, to her husband's family who ridiculed her keeping kosher: Mrs. Sandviches they called her. "I try very hard to understand you," she told them a half century before tolerance became a hackneyed term.

My grandmother was something we looked to become - and often despaired. As she sat in the dinette saying her Tehillim and davening so meticulously and faithfully a cousin once said, "Oh Bubby, it's no use. I'll never be like you." And what do you think, I was born a Bubby saying Tehillim, she answered.

So without ever having heard the distinction of tradition and traditionalism, I embraced the former and ridiculed the latter. Maxwell House Seders were tinny. I prefer foccacia to borsht. There are no dancing rabbis on my coffee table or bless this shmutz signs in my kitchen. Tradition I upheld, not traditionalism.

Now I think I may have overstepped it. While the distinction is a crucial one, nostalgia and retaining family memories develop a passion for tradition, the torch passed form Sinai on, that our children are reaching up to grab. Somewhere with the carrots, zucchini, matzo meal and eggs was mixed in a devotion and love and pride and confidence to continue the work that was begun and given to us.

"Why do you insist your children be just like you?" My grandmother was hotly challenged in the thirties. "Why do you steal my most precious dreams?" she replied, "I want they should be better than me!"

She maintains her dream was, in the end realized: none of her grandchildren see it.

If past experience is any indication, this Pesach, G-d willing, I will sit down with my children, with friends and family to the Seder. We will break the matzah and dip the egg, choke on the bitter herbs and recline with wine. We will be forging a link and transmitting the passion of illustrious ancestors with simple acts. We will also indulge in Bubbie Lew's egg and onion, my mother's gefilte fish (both of them got it from their mothers) sing Zaidie Lew's Hodu and introduce the Seder plate the way I saw my father do every year until I was married.

We will live with the faith of those who lived before us. . .in between bites.

 

Reality

Something real.  I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists.  
Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff.  
Which I don't need to: I have enough real things around me.  
Especially toys: big toys because I'm a big kid.  
And lots of toys, because the one who dies with most toys wins.  And I want to win.

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters.  People call me lucky.  
As long as I'm sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters.  People call me lucky.
As long as I'm drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters.  Unless I wake up.
And because I might wake up, those who aren't drunk and high feel sorry for me.  
Are they right, or am I?
"Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs" a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.

So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, am I lucky?  Well yes, maybe.

Because there is something other than toys.  
Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence): 
Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing) 
Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy. 
If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.

Now I wake up to a whole new world.  
Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life.  
New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new.  
Not "new to me": new.  My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything.  
He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different.  
Something new.  

(Torah speaks of the "new moon", not because the-ancients-believed-that-

the-moon-actually-disappeared-

on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)

Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it - something stirring inside of me.  Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.

This week's entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah.  If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world.  They only resonate in a land beyond toys.  And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don't operate as well in this other world.  

But I don't have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with them helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys.  

Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren't superficial or dimensional.  We only think toys are us.  Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up.  To the real world.

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Sound like double trouble? Over-employment? The latest synagogue sitcom? Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 

We started that way. Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there. Moses' older brother never was quite his associate rabbi. Aaron was vastly more popular. He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants' business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home. Mr. Nice. 

Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal. The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist. Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right. 

Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace. Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise. Torah insists on both, hence a team - not an individual - was needed for the making of a people. 

Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged; accusations of nepotism drained him. Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 

The brothers' disparity did not end with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron's funeral nearly doubled Moshe's. 

But significantly, it was only upon Moshe's passing that despair threatened the people. Aaron's popularity rewarded him with a large funeral, Moshe's instruction earned him the role of leader. Aaron's passing evoked mourning; Moshe's passing created a terrifying void. Like money, you appreciate leadership when you lose it. 

We need Aaron and we need Moshe. One without the other creates imbalance. If we favor peace over truth because peace makes allowances and truth makes demands, we'll get neither. It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is no sitcom.

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