During his first few weeks at a new congregation, a newly ordained rabbi grew curious and slightly irritated at what appeared to be a tradition unique to the community. Each week when a certain prayer was said in the service, half the congregation would rise and the other half would remain seated. Those standing would glare in disgust at those seated, and those in their seats would scowl at the people standing.
The eager young rabbi, wanting to make peace among his people and bring some decorum back to services, suggested that they resolve the dispute once and for all.
A representative from each faction was chosen, and along with the rabbi they visited the oldest member of the congregation, now living in a local nursing home. The man was frail, but his mind was sharp and his memory was clear. The delegate from the “standers” asserted, “Wasn’t it always our custom to stand for this prayer?”
“No,” said the wise old gentleman. “That was not the tradition.”
“Then we are supposed to sit,” proclaimed the representative from the “sitters,” a sound of victory in his voice.
“No,” said the sage. “That was not the tradition.”
At that point both men resumed their argument exactly where they had left off.
The old man looked at the two bickering men and declared, “That’s the tradition.”
The richness of Judaic tradition and the endurance of the Jewish people have less to do with a strict adherence to ancient customs and more to do with a general discontent with the status quo and a never-ending search for truth; a quest fueled by the questions we ask and the answers we seek.
The Passover Seder (which this year will be held on Monday and Tuesday evening, March 25 and 26) is the classic Jewish experience. It begins with four questions asked by the youngest participant at the table. The time-honored ritual continues as the leader reads through the haggadah, answering each of the child’s questions while family and friends experience the Exodus story by tasting the Israelites’ suffering: their tears (salt water), the bitterness of their servitude (horseradish)—even the mortar they used to build Pharaoh’s store-cities (chopped apple and nut salad).
But the story does not end there. We conclude the Seder with the words: L’shanah ha’bah-ah b’Yirushalayim…Next year in Jerusalem. This is less a geo-political statement and more a call to action. It gives voice to our cultural DNA, expressing dissatisfaction with the injustice and oppression that still exist in our world and the hope that the questions we ask of ourselves will inspire us to work toward Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world our faith requires of us.
The world is in constant motion. Styles change, sensibilities and customs come in and out of vogue. And what is right for one generation may be wrong for the next.
Some values, though, are timeless. Every human being deserves to live without fear, released from the bondage of poverty and deprivation. This is a truth that never changes. So too are the questions we ask: what can we do to make the world a more peaceful and just place for all who live on this earth? Those are the questions that are eternal and worth arguing about.
Rabbi Robert Goldstein is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel on Haggets Pond Road in Andover.