In a printed correspondence last year, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck’s Bnai Yeshurun synagogue 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 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 disagree; though I reject the haredi position, I do think that I understand it.
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, there is comfort in deliberately not adding or subtracting, in raising one’s own children to recite the very same prayers that one’s parents recited. There is a sense of eternity in knowing that the words we utter before God are the same words that were on the lips of our ancestors before we was born, and that they will be the same words, unchanged, generations after we are gone.
The Egyptian solar calendar provided this same sort of unchanging stability. Each year was exactly the same as the year that preceded it, and each year was the same as the year that followed. Everyone knew what to expect: 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 was 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 implies that life is really a series of new beginnings, and that the future is unpredictable.
This can be a very scary proposition. If nothing ever really 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, though, we have to worry about the consequences of what we are doing. Every decision becomes fraught, because it is possible to be catastrophically wrong.
This idea powerfully finds expression at the beginning of Parashat Tazria. The classic question that has launched a thousand sermons is why a yoledet, a woman who just gave birth, observes a period of tuma’ah, of ritual impurity. We tend to associate 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 Tzvi Henkin suggests that birth and death, the liminal moments at the beginning and end of life, share in common our recognition that life is finite. Just as we observe tuma’ah to mark the end of life and remember that will not always be, we observe tuma’ah as we celebrate a new beginning, and remember that we not always were.
A similar question 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 bittersweetly remembering a past that can be no longer, for marking the closing of a chapter of life. Everything a young couple knew about themselves changes upon the birth of a baby and the formation of a family. They are simply not the same people. Over the course of their lives as parents they will continue to recreate themselves, each time leaving their previous selves behind. A woman giving birth also means that some who used to be parents are now grandparents, and mixed with the joys and satisfactions of that chapter of life come the quiet closings of the chapters that came before.
The truth is that, with a solar worldview, 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 comes the understanding that keeping things the same as the world changes is a conscious and deliberate choice.
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 changed so dramatically. This is also a fault-line that divides Modern Orthodoxy itself on a host of important issues. However these debates play out, we need to realize that the appeal to tradition, that saying “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 move a different decision. Like it or not, we live in a world of New Moons.
Perhaps, then, we can find meaning in how Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are celebrated just after the beginning of a new Hebrew month. Facing new realities, and with them the responsibility for the future, should be both poignant, painful, promising, and exhilarating – all at the same time. If things never change, they 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. As we reflect and celebrate, let us do so with the recognition that we are in uncharted waters, and what happens next is up to us.