Traditions of the Living and the Dead

Killed at Battle of Gettysburg by Ronda Mann

Dear Friends,

Willow, a bright twelve-year-old student answered my question in a way I had never heard before. “Why do you want to have a Bat Mitzvah,” I asked. “Tradition,” she said, “should be something we think of every day.” The reason Willow is right is simply because tradition is something we live with every day of our lives. The Jewish tradition is one piece of that. The particular traditions of our families past, present and future is another. And then there are the traditions that go beyond our family, our people, our faith.

I thought of these traditions this week as I heard Jamie Raskin, the lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial, describe his daughter, Tabitha’s response to the insurrection in DC. “I don’t want to come back to the Capitol,” she told her father that day. As he told the story, you could feel a father’s brokenness at the shattering of a tradition he received from his parents, and was passing down to his children, one called American democracy.

I also thought of these traditions when I watched Reverend Raphael Warnock’s sermon that he gave at Shabbat service at The Temple, an Atlanta synagogue, ten days after his election to the senate. That day a cyber attack shut down the livestreams of all Atlanta synagogues, reminding us that we live with hateful traditions as well, every day. But the reverend’s sermon spoke to another tradition, MLK’s Beloved Community. That day, Warnock said, speaking of the day of his murder, MLK was busy working on his War Against Poverty. Today we live with those traditions too. When we mark Black History Month, when we work for equality, we are continuing the life work of heroes like John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and harkening back to our prophets all the way back to Moses, who in this week’s parasha says: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest,” a practical law reflecting a tradition deeply attuned to the poor and the vulnerable.

Rabbi Ponet once described Judaism to me as the art of living with our dead. That is one possible explanation of the word tradition. Reverend Warnock offered another:

“Our life’s project,” he suggested, “ought to be longer than our life span.”

What our ancestors began is being completed by us. What we are beginning will be completed by those who will come after us. When we say MiDor leDor, from generation to generation, we are describing our life as a link on the same chain as the dead and the not yet born, all of us bodies of tradition.

In a real way, we live with our ancestors and those we lived with and have died every day of our lives. When we are gone, those we leave will live with us every day of their lives. We are connected to the past and to the future. Tradition is a revelation of that truth.

The Hebrew word for tradition, Masoret, underscores that. It means a passing; Passing on, passing away, passing back, picking up the baton passed to us, and passing it forward when we pass on into eternity.

When we come together for Shabbat this evening we will be living out our tradition. We will be children to our parents and grandchildren to our grandparents. We will be parents and grandparents and great grandparents to people we may never meet in person. We will be friends of those we loved and learned from and lovers of those we never knew we taught.

Join me tonight at 6pm to light the lights, sing the songs, and discuss the myriad ways we live with our ancestors, and they with us every day. Our musical guest will be the wonderful Jack Klebanow, who many of you know from our Niggunim chevrutah.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Misha