Is Yeridat Hadorot an overly dramatic romanticization of the past? Is this concept disrespectful and dishonest towards us? Is it yet another way of putting ourselves down?
And what about the inherent contradiction within the tradition where, for example an Amora cannot argue on a Tanna, yet a later Tanna trumps an earlier one, (halakha kebasrai)?
The first step in understanding this central area of Jewish thought is recognizing that each era faced different struggles. Speaking broadly, each era of Jewry had a different area of strength and weakness.
What this means is that we cannot make linear direct comparisons between “us and them”. For example, we cannot say, “Jews in Russia gave up their lives to pray, yet so many of us barely pray with focus ” since, there are many more elements at play. For one, in Russia the phenomenon of “Kasis Lamaor” was in play. Kasis Lamaor means that the dynamics of the Jewish soul are such that when confronted with adversity, a Jew tends to double down on his religion.
Even discounting Kasis Lamaor, they were simply a different generation with different intellectual and emotional compositions. And their unique talents were tested by unique challenges that were geared to them.
So yes, past generations were giants in certain areas. But if they were here now, faced with the democratization of knowledge and exposure to every pleasurable impulse in the world, they might not have measured up as well as YOU are doing.
Which brings us to a more central idea – that the struggle between good and evil is always balanced. You not checking Facebook for the 20 minutes you go to Shul to daven Maariv in 2013 = a Jew risking his life to learn Torah in 1930 or 1830 or – you get the idea…
By the way, this also means that each person within each era faces the same amount of struggle since God always balances the attraction to good and evil. That’s why our Sages say that a holy man has a HUGE pull to temptation and evil and a fertile imagination that tries to distract him. Kol hagadol mechaveior yitzro gadel heimenu.
Fine, so each era has their struggles and we’re all equal, whatever. But then why can’t we argue with a Tanna or Amora (maybe not you or me but why not the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Reb Moshe Feinstein etc…)? This brings us to the next important point. Once we understand that each era had different struggles and temptations it also means that each era had different areas of expertise and strengths! The era of Tannaim had expertise and authority in the Oral Torah (codified in the Mishnah) while the Ammoraim had expertise and authority in interpreting the Oral Torah (codified in the Talmud). And so on. That’s also why the Halakha is in accordance with the later Tannaim. Because within each era of expertise, the culmination and apex of that arc of strength, was embodied in the last generation of that era.
WHAT’S WITH US?
Interestingly enough, the Lubavitcher Rebbe defined what our era’s struggle and strength is. He said that our struggle is an unprecedented time of darkness, lack of direction, and overall emotional and intellectual confusion. Yankel in the shtetl was not confused or tempted to take that corporate job and stop wearing a Yarmulke. Shaindel didn’t have to struggle with covering her hair or wearing a skirt to the board meeting.
Our strength then is the amazing fact, that Jews are still committed to Halakha and to being in a relationship with God. It makes no sense. He hasn’t spoken to us in thousands of years, there is incredible temptation and freedom, AND we’re not deep thinkers of Torah, or incredible devotees who can focus and pray for 6 hours. We really are simple people, in Jewish spiritual terms, yet WE PERSEVERE. We keep showing up day and day out and saying to ourselves and the World, “Come what may – I’m all in…”
The Rebbe felt that this was an expression of the deepest part of our souls – the essential core of the Jewish soul. When a prophet speaks to you, you have incredible depth in your intellectual understanding or you have a deep and rich emotional intelligence then you’re doing it (partly) because you are compelled to. Your brain and heart scream that it’s the only thing that makes sense and is attractive. But when the only reason your doing it is because it’s you and you cant imagine being without it? That’s essence, that’s commitment.
A newlywed husband, who is rapturously in love with his wife, hasn’t been tested. We don’t know how strong his bond truly is or how dependent it is on his feelings. But when life sets in and he doesn’t waver – when he is still committed 80 years later, through the thick and thin, when she annoys him and when she doesn’t –that’s commitment – that’s a bond!
No wonder Moshe Rabbeinu told God that he is humbled by the Jews who live in the era before Moshiach.
We are that husband. Let’s know it, own it and embrace it.