My dear Yael and Yehoshua,
When a grandfather stands before his grandchild at the time of her Chupah, many thoughts come to mind. These moments are infused with intense emotion and immense meaning. Above all, one experiences overflowing feelings of gratitude and thankfulness.
These special moments give rise to feelings of great anticipation and hope for renewal, combined with nostalgic reminisces and fading memories of the past.
The Jewish people’s relationship with time is paradoxical and complex. We are a people with a long history and great hopes for the future. We are a people who still relive the past while at the same time already relishing a foretaste of the future. We still experience the exodus of Egypt as if it were happening today while simultaneously enjoying a blissful glimpse of Olam Haba (the world to come) every Shabbat when we sit at our Shabbat tables like kings and queens and our enchanted dreams of the future become momentarily realized.
However, despite our glorious past and marvelous vision of the future, we have difficulty relating to the “here and now” since as Jews we do not feel at ease within the limited confines of the “present”. We are in need of ample “space” in which we can include the past and the future and condense them into the present. This is far from easy. What we need is what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik calls: “Generation Awareness”
What is generation awareness? It is something which most of the world has forgotten but is indispensable for living. Let me explain: Today there is no sense of historical continuity. We live in an era in which time has lost its meaning. In the current age things move at such a quick pace that we lose the ability to keep track of time, and thus we enter into a state of time-detachment and a-temporality. We can compare this mindset to what is known in the philosophy of science as a paradigm shift, i.e. a scientific development that is not the product of a gradual and incremental improvement upon earlier scientific discoveries but a completely new discovery that is totally unprecedented and “hits” us unexpectedly with utter amazement.
This is a great triumph for science but it may have deleterious psychological side-effects. When we lose our connection with the “before”; when memories of the past are no longer important, we lose our roadmap to the future. The human being needs to be rooted in the past in order to leap toward the future.
Today, parents and children are no longer able to communicate with each other. Although the difference in age is negligible, existentially they live light years apart. New generations speak a language that is completely foreign to the older generation. There exists an unbridgeable gap of radically different attitudes and values. There is no common bond spanning the generations and most of the time the new generation becomes obsessed with itself. This leads to severe self-deception, unrealistic expectations, and superficiality. We currently witness a highly sophisticated younger generation which is incapable of emerging out of its cocoon. This is a most worrisome development. This lack of connection can unfortunately lead to misunderstanding, tension, animosity, and even to violence and war.
As Jews we are highly aware of this threat. We know that if there is anything that keeps us alive it is the eternal bond between the generations. As a nation small in numbers, we know that we cannot survive by might alone. There can be no future if there is no continuity with the past; by forsaking the past we forfeit our future. For this reason we are acutely aware of the predicament that plagues us today. Influenced by the world around us, we have lost our most precious secret of survival: Generation awareness.
We have convinced ourselves that we can survive like any other nation; that all we need to do is normalize ourselves vis-א-vis the rest of the world and everything will be fine. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that we no longer need to maintain historic continuity with our ancestors. Indeed, much of Israeli society is built on this premise. However this is a tragic mistake borne out of self-deception and a false sense of security. Not only are weaker nations around us disintegrating rapidly because they do not remain loyal to their past, this is happening to mighty nations as well. Their strength in numbers is no guarantee of survival.
More than any other nation we depend on a strong attachment to our past. We have no numbers to count on. However, since we have rejected the need for “generation awareness,” we are, just like many other nations, disintegrating rapidly. This is besides the fact that our desire to be a normal nation is undermined daily by a world which does not want us to “be counted among the nations.” This is clearly demonstrated by the great amount of animosity that Israel has to deal with. It is time for us to wake up and find our way back to what our forefathers stood for.
Today we realize that we have too much history, too little geography, too many hopes for the future, and too few members to survive. We survive only by a miracle. Therefore we need to create a strong bond between our fellow Jews and their ancestors in order to create a brighter future.
This is the meaning of “generation awareness.” Jewish survival depends on the conscious link between earlier and later generations. We call this the “mesora community,” a community in which traditions and customs are passed down from generation to generation. Not as ancient customs and quaint relics of the past but as living experiences in which we take enormous pride.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik relates an unforgettable lesson that he learned from his melamed (teacher) when he was young boy studying in cheder. During that time, they were learning the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. The Torah relates how Joseph questioned his brothers “Have you a father, or a brother?” to which his brothers replied: “We have an old father and a young child of his old age…” (Bereishit 44:19).
The melamed explained the deeper meaning of this passage. Joseph was inquiring about existential parenthood, not biological parenthood. Joseph was anxious to know whether they felt themselves committed to their roots, to their origins. Were they origin conscious? Are you, Joseph asked the brothers, rooted in your father? Do you look upon him the way the branches, or the blossoms, look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the feeder, as the foundation of your existence? Or are you a band of rootless shepherds who forget their origin, and travel and wander from place to place, from pasture to pasture?
“Ha-yesh lachem av?! Do you have a father?!” exclaimed the melamed, confronting his pupils: “Are you proud of your fathers? What they stand for? If you do and like other Jews admit to the supremacy of your own fathers and ancestors, then, ipso facto, you, like all other Jews, admit to the supremacy of the Universal Father, the ancient Creator of the world who is called Atik Yomim (‘He of Ancient Days’)”.
We already find this concept of “generation awareness” in connection with the Sinai revelation:
“I make this covenant and this oath not with you alone but with those who are here standing with us this day before the Lord your God and those who are not with us today.” Rashi: That is with the future generations (Devarim 29:13-14).
What does this mean? It means that Jews do not live in time; they transcend time. We are a nation that transcends history and are lifted into eternity.
All Jews stood at Sinai, even those who were not physically present. Similarly, it is remarkable how the Talmud (Menachot, 29b) relates an “encounter” between Moshe Rabenu and Rabbi Akiva even though historically speaking they could have never met!
In our study halls, Maimonides could have a discussion with the Gaon of Vilna, and the Baal Shem Tov can sit in the Tent of Avraham Avinu and discuss the halachic observations made by the Talmudic sages. Wherever and whenever Jews live, they live in “eternal time” and they all meet in the same Beit Midrash.
Over the thousands of years of exile we maintained a connection wherever we found ourselves. We kept discussing our mission and debated the Talmud even though we lived thousands of miles apart and hundreds of years removed. We are the first “Internet” people and were able to enter a “time machine” and get out in every century we wanted. This made us into a nation which by its very definition could never fit into community of nations.
When we look at our grandchildren, we are filled with great hopes and dreams. We hope that they will speak our language, think our thoughts, feel our sentiments, and hold onto our priorities. We hope they will implement our vision and cherish our ideals. We want them to belong to the “fraternity of the committed.” If this happens, we are confident that there will be a future.
But we also realize that your generation, Yael and Yehoshua, is confronted by overwhelming odds and challenges in comparison to the ones that we faced. The world is changing drastically, in fact it changes almost every few weeks, and the power of the temptations and distractions “out there” is mind boggling. We hold our breath in trepidation when we see you compelled to confront this maelstrom. Will you manage to cope? Do you have the strength to endure?
Today I know that the answer is yes. Now that we have seen you under the Chupah and we realize how much Judaism and Jewish learning means to you, we are not just relieved that you survived but above all we are so joyful that you will thrive. What more do we want? The link between generations has once again been firmly established. This is no small feat and it enables us to look at the future with a great deal of optimism. The Torah and Judaism will not be forgotten. Whatever circumstances may befall us, we will prevail.
The Mishna states in the name of Rabbi Akiva: “A father endows his son with comely appearance, strength, riches, wisdom, longevity and “mispar hadorot lefanav”, the number of generations before him.” (Eduyot 2:9) This means, that a father transmits to his child the inheritance of all his progenitors. They are all his direct family with whom he has a personal connection. They travel with him wherever he goes, give him advice and save him from trouble. This says the Mishna is the secret to redemption. One can only be redeemed when one travels with all the generations.
But what are the essential components that constitute the “fraternity of the committed”? Is it just halachic living? Is it the uncompromising commitment to the code of Jewish law which forms this bond?
The answer is clearly in the negative. Halachic observance alone cannot create this kind of fraternity. We are in need of something more in order to move Judaism forward as a spiritually vital and existentially meaningful experience. This essential ingredient is something that seemingly many religious Jews today have forgotten.
Let me explain this by example.
We find ourselves in the middle of Chanukah and it is the kindling of the Chanukah lights that provides us with a profound insight into this matter.
The Talmud (Shabbat 23a) asks the question how it is possible that we recite a bracha (blessing) before we light the menorah which includes the phrase: “Who (i.e. God) has commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.” Where is it stated in the Torah that we need to light candles on Chanukah? After all, this is a Rabbinic institution. There is no mention of this in the Torah since the story of Chanukah took place hundreds of years after the giving of the Torah.
The Talmud gives us two answers:
Rav Avya said (that the justification for this bracha which states that we are commanded to light the candles) is “You shall not deviate from the word they (the sages) will tell you” (Devarim 17:11). This means that since God commanded us to listen to whatever the sages pronounced as Halacha, it is as if God Himself has commanded us to do so, therefore we can say: “Who commanded us.”
Rav Nechemiah offered an alternative solution and said that the source for this ruling is: “Ask you father and he will tell you and your elders and they will say to you” (Devarim 32:7).
The Netziv, Rabbi Natftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the head of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, (19th century) emphasizes that the statement of Rav Nechemiah teaches us about the power of custom, not Halacha. The “father and elders” in the verse in Devarim 32:7 is not referring to the sages of Israel, but to our own personal ancestors who initiated certain practices which later became customs and traditions in our families. In only a few instances were these traditions later established as Halacha, such as in the case of lighting the candles on Chanukah. It started as a custom and was slowly adopted by the people of Israel and eventually became law. Ultimately it was felt as if God Himself had commanded us to light the candles. But most of the time, the meaning of the phrase “Ask your father and he will tell you and your elders and they will say to you” does not refer to Halacha but the need to adopt family traditions and customs.
This is a most important and unusual observation. The Netziv introduces us to the power of Jewish customs (minhag), as distinct from Halacha. These traditions shape the unique character of individual families and communities. They are extremely powerful since they bind families and communities together in ways that Halacha cannot achieve. Halacha applies to all; it is not able to create specific customs which only belong to one family and not to another. In this sense Halacha fails to create the kind of particularistic bond which is crucial to the continuation of Jewish life. There is a strong need for exclusiveness and individuality of Jewish families and communities in order to ensure that Jews as a nation continue to survive and flourish. Halacha is somewhat stilted and cannot give enough direction to emotions and feelings within individuals. This is the power of custom. But custom is much more than a specific set of family practices. It also involves certain familial expressions, songs, foods, and even body language. Halacha teaches us how to act but it cannot provide insight into the quality of the act. It provides the musical score but it is not the performance of the music itself. Minhag is the corrective to this. It is flexible and adds color and warmth to our family life. It generates a distinctive ambiance and creates the culture of specific families and communities. It has no halachic rules and thus it is able to provide us with a living bond between family members and communities. It is responsible for the feeling which families are so much in need of, namely, uniqueness and exclusiveness.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that each one of us keeps his or her customs. The prevailing practice throughout the ages was that families would continue the traditions of their fathers. This is based upon the Torah‘s expression: “Families according to their father’s houses.” Surely we should not be rigid about this and force our children to adopt them slavishly; rather, we should imbue them with a love for these minhagim and the awareness that they are not just customs but above all eternal bonds of Jewish love. It is true that in many instances these customs are patriarchal in nature and therefore deeply disturbing from a feminist perspective, but we cannot deny that it worked wonders for the cohesion and solidarity of the Jewish people throughout the ages. Whether a new approach is necessary today is open to debate; however, we should be most careful not to replace well established customs with a haphazard mixture of random rituals or the adoption of foreign customs which leave our children in a muddle of rituals which do not provide them with a feeling of belonging and authentic connection.
This is also the reason why we even have separate cemeteries. There are old customs regarding burial rites going back hundreds if not thousands of years. Each community has its own unique rituals. There are special prayers and even melodies (chants) recited during the interment of the dead. There are special minhagim during the time of the shiva, the period of mourning. To jumble them together or to ignore them altogether is a tremendous mistake which undermines Jewish life and robs the younger people of what they need most in our day: A bond with the past.
Once we have connected with the past as individuals, we can easily introduce ourselves into the future. We will even be able to meet our future relatives. They may have not yet been born but they are already part of our family. We already know who they are, how they will live their Jewish lives, what values they will adhere to, and what life choices they will make. Together with the past generations, we will meet them in our present.
Let me conclude on a personal note. Coming from a highly assimilated family, I stand in total amazement when I look around and see that all my children, children-in-law, and grandchildren continue to live as deeply religious Jews. Indeed, it is miraculous. The chances that I would have married a Jewish woman were close to nil. That I would ever get in touch with Judaism was unthinkable. If things would have followed the “normal” course of events, I would now be living in Holland with a non-Jewish wife and non-Jewish children who would vaguely remember that they are of Jewish ancestry.
And here I live in the midst of Yerushalayim, surrounded by my grandchildren. My grandsons wear colored or black kippot, some of them with peyot and all walking with tzitzit. My granddaughters learn Torah and dress modestly, instead of being clad in T-shirts which barely cover their bodies. They are proud Jews and are in love with Judaism just as I am. Oh yes, you know that I disagree with much of what is going on within the Orthodox establishment and that I believe that we need to have a fresh look at Judaism and see what can be done to revitalize it as a deeply religious tradition. But it is my deep love for authentic Judaism which motivates me in this undertaking. And now I see that my grandchildren share this love with me.
Alas, what has happened? I do not really know. I wonder whether a Portuguese Jewish forefather of mine crept into my genes. Just as he longed to come back to Judaism after he escaped the inquisition in 1492, likewise it seems that I had to find my way back. What I also know is that my father, your great-grandfather Jacob Lopes Cardozo z.l. was an extremely proud Portuguese Jew. He instilled in me a strong affiliation with the Portuguese Jewish tradition. And my mother hailing from a non-Jewish background fully endorsed this. I greatly regret that we did not give enough attention to this tradition in our home. Not because it is the tradition for everybody. It is not. Baruch Hashem there are other fine traditions whether Sephardi, Ashkenazi, or Chassidic with all their variations. There is a need for each one of them because each family needs to have its own tradition in order to move forward and create the feeling of its own uniqueness to be proud of. This is also the case with the parents of your grandmother, my dear wife, Opa and Oma Gnesin. And so it is with families Walkin and Salomon. All hailing from a very different background with their customs which are beautiful and not to be forgotten. All this holds the secret to redemption.
My blessings to you are that you and your children will walk in the ways of God and that you will pass on fine traditions of which you and your children will be proud. It will serve you well and you will be successful. Am Yisrael Chai!