Perhaps you have seen a recent correspondence, published by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck’s Bnai Yeshurun. In it, he pointedly asks a haredi Jew living in Israel why his community does not recite the prayer on behalf of members of the IDF during the Shabbat Morning service. Rabbi Pruzansky describes the response he typically receives to this challenge as “stunned silence [or] a muffled “the Rebbe…the Rosh Yeshiva… has never told us to say it,” and concludes that it is “simply inexplicable, a lack of derech eretz, hakarat hatov, and common sense.” I do not agree with the choice, but I do think that I understand it. I believe strongly that from the hassid in Meah She’arim to the yeshiva student in Bnei Brak, nobody bears any ill will towards the soldiers of the IDF – in fact, just the opposite. I believe that their reluctance to add this prayer, obviously so meaningful to us, comes from a very different place – a place that we can also relate to very strongly.
Obviously, our siddur developed over time; it is the product of literally thousands of years of experiences, of triumphs and tragedies, of dreams, nightmares, celebrations, and lamentations. That is undeniable. Still, there is something very authentic in choosing to follow exactly the same liturgy transmitted by the generations that came immediately before you, and then bequeathing that exact same liturgy to the generations that are to come. For a Jew seeking to serve as a reliable link in the chain of mesorah, of tradition, it is comforting to deliberately choose to not make any changes, to not add or subtract, to raise your own children to recite the same prayers that your parents taught you. There is a sense of eternity – literally l’dor va-dor — in knowing that the words one utters before God are the same words on the lips of his ancestors before one was born, and that they will be the same words, unchanged, generations after one is gone.
The Egyptian solar calendar provided this same sort of unchanging stability, where each year is exactly the same as the year that preceded it, where each year was the same as the year to follow. Everyone knew what to expect, everyone understood when the seasons would turn, when the crops would be ready to harvest, when the holidays would be celebrated. What’s more, everyone also understood that the way it is now is how it always was — and the way it always would be. This was, no doubt, a great source of comfort to an ancient society, and we can imagine how it gave them the impression that they were part of something much larger than themselves, something eternal and infinite.
Yet the Torah demanded that the Israelites reject that sense of certainty, and adopt a lunar calendar. They would no longer know which months would be 29 or 30 days long — they would have to search the skies, battling human error, bad weather, and a host of circumstances and externalities. The calendar would no longer be set and reliable – it literally had to be reestablished month to month, by a human court, based on the testimony of witnesses. This kind of calendar carries an entirely different world-view. It teaches us that life is really a series of new beginnings, and that the future is unpredictable, sometimes wildly so.
This can be a very scary proposition. If nothing changes, then we do not have to worry about making poor decisions — all we have to do is follow the script. If there is no script, if we are constantly hitting the reset button and starting over, we have to worry about the consequences of what we are doing. We might be turning everything off course. Any decision becomes fraught with potential peril – because suddenly it is possible to be catastrophically wrong.
I think that this is a powerful message that comes through at the beginning of Parashat Tazria. The classic question that has launched a thousand sermons is why a yoledet, a woman who has just gave birth, observes a period of tuma’ah, of ritual impurity. We tend to associate ritual impurity with contact with death and decay — a dead body, leprosy (tzara’at), irregular bodily emissions, and so on. A woman who has just brought new life into the world should represent the exact opposite of all that — so why does she become impure at the very moment of childbirth?
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin suggests that birth and death, the moments at the beginning and end of life, share in common our realization of the gulf between finite human beings and the Divine — the infinite. Just as we observe tuma’ah to mark the end of life, that we will not always be, we observe tuma’ah as we recognize a new beginning, that we not always were.
Another question that has launched a thousand sermons is why a new mother does not offer a korban todah, a thanksgiving offering. Perhaps the answer is that the awesome moment of childbirth is not just a time for celebration, but also a time for marking a past that can be no longer, and a future that is uncertain. Everything a young couple knew about life, about themselves, changes upon the birth of a baby and the creation of a family. Parents become grandparents, closing a chapter of their lives forever as well. The new parents realize, as all parents do, that there is no manual for raising a child, that it is impossible to plan their child’s future. The responsibility is tremendous. Each decision carries so much weight. In a way, it is the ultimate New Moon, definitively ending one chapter of life and beginning a new one.
The truth is that, with a solar world-view, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, generation after generation, is not really a choice. It is just the natural order of things. However, with a lunar world-view, we understand that keeping things the same as the world changes, as we constantly experience new beginnings, is a conscious and deliberate choice. This has become especially apparent in the recent questions that have arisen in recent years and months. For better or for worse, the haredi community has chosen to structure their tefilot and society exactly as their parents and grandparents did, despite the fact that the world around them has clearly changed dramatically. This is also the fault-line currently dividing the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist communities on a host of issues. However these debates play out on the merits, and there are certainly powerful arguments to be made on both sides, it is important for us to realize that the appeal to tradition, to say “this is how it was done, and this is how we want to pass it on,” is a conscious choice, no different at its core than the decision to go in a different decision. Like it or not, we live in a world of new moons.
Facing new realities, and the responsibility for our decisions as we face them, should not be only foreboding. It is also promising, invigorating, rejuvenating. The birth of a child, after all, is a time for introspection, but also elation, excitement, and anticipation for what is to come. If things always stay the same, if they never change, things may never get worse, but they can also never get better. The argument for stasis is the argument that the status quo is the best we can do. On the other hand, if things can change, they can get worse, but they can also get better. This is why Nissan is traditionally the month of ge’ulah, of redemption. Only by fully living in a reality where things change, where life is fluid and dynamic, do we have the possibility of making the right choices — choices that improve the world around us, that bring new light into the world, that lead to ge’ulah for ourselves and those around us.