From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“This is my G‑d and I will glorify Him, the G‑d of my fathers and I will exalt Him.”
How important is tradition in Judaism? Very important. They even devoted a major song in Fiddler on the Roof to tradition!
How strong is the need for tradition in the spiritual consciousness of Jews today? Despite the effects of secularism, I’d venture to suggest that there is still a need inside us to feel connected to our roots, our heritage, and our sense of belonging to the Jewish people. But for vast numbers of our people, tradition alone has not been enough.
And that applies not only for the rebellious among us who may have cast aside their traditions with impunity, but also for many ordinary, thinking people who decided that to do something just because “that’s the way it has always been done” was simply not good enough. So what if my grandfather did it? My grandfather rode around in a horse and buggy! Must I give up my car for a horse just because my Zayde rode a horse? And what if my Bobba never got a university degree? Why shouldn’t I? So, just because my grandparents practiced certain Jewish traditions, why must I? Perhaps those traditions are as obsolete as the horse and buggy.
There are masses of Jews who think this way and who will not be convinced to behave Jewishly just because their grandparents did. We need to tell them why their grandparents did it. They need to understand that their grandparents’ traditions were not done just for tradition’s sake but that there was a good reason why their forebears practiced those traditions. And those very same reasons and rationales still hold good today.
Too many young people were put off tradition because some cheder or talmud Torah teacher didn’t take their questions seriously. They were silenced with a wave of the hand, a pinch of the ear, the classic “when you get older, you’ll understand,” or the infamously classic “just do as you’re told.”
There are answers. There have always been answers. We may not have logical explanations for the tzorres that befall so many innocent people, but all our traditions are founded on substance and have intelligible, credible underpinnings. If we seek answers, we will find them in abundance, including layers and layers of meaning, from the simple to the symbolic, the philosophical, and even the mystical. This week’s parashah features the “Song of the Sea” sung by Moses and the Jewish people following the splitting of the sea and their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptian armies. Early on, we find the verse, “This is my G‑d and I will glorify Him, the G‑d of my fathers and I will exalt Him.”
The sequence in this passage is highly significant. First comes “My G‑d,” and only thereafter “the G‑d of my fathers.” In the Amidah, the silent devotion which is the apex of our daily prayers, we begin addressing the Al-mighty as “Our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers . . . Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Again, “our G‑d” comes first. So it is clear that while “the G‑d of our fathers,” or tradition, most definitely plays a very important role in Judaism, still, an indispensable prerequisite is that we must make G‑d ours, personally. Every Jew must develop a personal relationship with G‑d. We need to understand the reasons and the significance of our traditions lest they be seen as empty ritual to be discarded by the next generation.
Authentic Judaism has never shied away from questions. Questions have always been encouraged and have formed a part of our academic heritage. Every page of the Talmud is filled with questions—and answers. You don’t have to wait for the Pesach Seder to ask a question. When we think, ask, and find answers in our faith, then the traditions of our grandparents become alive, and we understand fully why we should make them ours. Once a tradition has become ours and we then realize that this very same practice has been observed uninterruptedly by our ancestors throughout the millennia of Jewish life, then tradition becomes a powerful force that can inspire us forever. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.