Tradition, Values and Societal Change

The transfer of authority from Aaron as high priest to his son Elazar involve a miracle. The symbol of the transfer was the giving to Elazar of the priestly garments. Normally, when a person gives his clothing to another, he takes off the outer garments and then the inner garments. The other fellow waits to put on the inner garments and then the outer garments. But in this case, Elazar put them on in reverse order. Everything that Aaron took off, Elazar immediately put on. Thus, it would seem he was wearing the undergarments on the outside!

And so a miracle occurred, and when Elazar emerged from the cave where Aaron was to die, the clothing reversed itself. Many commentators question the need for this miracle. Why not let Elazar wait a few more seconds to put the clothing on in the proper order?

One answer I saw was quite satisfying. This was done to stress the importance of continual tradition. There should not even be a moment's break. Somebody must be wearing the garments of the high priest at every second. Tradition must be embraced with energy and vigor, not in a lackluster fashion. It would not be appropriate for Elazar to sit around waiting, he must eagerly grab the vestments of the high priest in order to keep the tradition continuous.

We can learn a lot from babies. A young child may become attached to a doll or a blanket. I warn you, do not try and take that doll or blanket away! You will see how powerful the toddler can become. Especially when bringing the child to a new framework, day care or a nursery, it is important that the child bring the doll or blanket with them. This is call they "transitional object." It provides a tremendous sense of security, and allows the child to move with confidence into unfamiliar surroundings.

This is the role of tradition. The traditions may be as seemingly unimportant as a recipe for Haroset on Passover, or as central as how you pronounce the Hebrew prayers. In any case, connecting to the tradition of your fathers and grandfathers creates a tremendous sense of security. This is, after all, who we are. Tradition may even supersede a better halakhic practice. Case in point:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once gave a detailed explanation as to why it is halachically preferable to sit down during the Kiddush prayer on Sabbath. Some have the custom of standing for that prayer, and Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that this was not the proper opinion.

The next Sabbath, the rabbi was staying in the Yeshiva. At the Friday night table, he recited the Kiddush standing up. His students came to him completely puzzled. Didn't the rabbi just tell them a few days before that it is better to sit for the Kiddush? "What can I do," responded Rabbi Soloveitchik, "this is the tradition of my fathers."

Now, mind you, standing or sitting for Kiddush is not a violation of Halakha. Nobody can say that they have a tradition to violate the Sabbath! But when faced with a question of a better halakhic practice or a tradition, tradition wins. This is because tradition connects us to Mount Sinai. Tradition connects us to the Jewish people in the Jewish faith. Tradition is the security blanket that lets us go boldly into a changing world, remaining ever young.

I think there is another significance to the reversed transferal of garments. At some point, the baby out grows the blanket. Does this mean that tradition is only important when a person is young? Not at all. What it means is that the tradition becomes internalized. The baby is no longer holding the blanket, because the blanket has become part of the baby's person.

There are two parts of a tradition. The external part is the physical action of the tradition, the preparing of the food, the performance of the ritual. The internal part is the security and connection to Judaism that the tradition brings. I believe that the outer garments of the High Priest represents the physical fulfillment of the traditions. The inner garments represent the emotional and spiritual connections.

At first, Aaron gives over the outer garments, the external symbols of tradition. Elazar grasps these and brings them to his flesh. Then he receives the inner garments, the emotional and spiritual dimension of tradition. These do not immediately touch his flesh, they remain outside of him. But as he continues to fulfill the physical elements of tradition, the emotional connection grows and comes closer to his flesh. Finally, he is wearing the clothes in order.

And once he has the external clothing on the outside, they become available to everyone else with whom he has contact. He thus continues to influence others to embrace the physical traditions of Judaism, which will, with time, become part of their person.

A responsible parent knows the time to pamper, and the time to step back. They know when the baby needs the blanket, and when to allow the child to proceed without it.

The children of Israel required water. After 40 years in the desert, they were getting close to the point of entering the Promised Land. When there well ran dry, they complained, and God told Moses and Aaron speak to the rock "and it shall give forth water." Moses, however, did not speak to the rock, but rather hit it with his stick. God immediately punished him by decreeing that he would not enter the Land with the people. What did he do that was so terrible, especially if it worked?

Years before, when the Israelites had just left Egypt, there was a similar need for water and a similar mini rebellion. At that time, Moses was commanded to hit the rock in order to bring forth the water. So Moses simply repeated what he had done successfully a generation before. So terrible?

Yes, because it was the equivalent of forcing the grown child to take his security blanket with him. When the Israelites were new, they needed to be taken care of. They had just emerged from slavery, and were easily frightened and insecure. They were putting on new traditions, but still lacks the internal connections and security they needed. So when they needed water, Moses achieved it from a top-down perspective. He hit the rock, and the rock obeyed.

Similarly, when the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites, it was God who commanded Moses to put Joshua in command and to stand on the high place raising his arms. Again, a top-down response to a challenge. Moses and Joshua lead, the people follow.

But now, a new generation has already grown up, and their underwear is on the inside. They have internalized the blanket, they are secure and connected. All Moses needed to do was to speak to the rock, to show it respect and allow it to bring forth the water on its own. And, similarly, after Aaron passes on, the Israelites are attacked by Canaanites. This time, however, Moses and Joshua are not even mentioned in the fight. Instead, the Israelites themselves swear to destroy their enemy. They have, indeed, grown up and changed. Moses no longer needs to hold their hand, no longer is needed to be their leader.

And this is the historical process of the Jewish people. The peak of prophecy was Moses, but throughout the generations it declined. At one point, prophecy stopped altogether. That's not because the people were bad, it's because the people were growing up.

We have a responsibility to keep our traditions alive, and to keep our faith the young and vibrant. By embracing the physical traditions, the foods, the melodies, the special ways to fulfill the commandments, we start the process by which are inner security and connection becomes stronger. By embracing the old, we become renewed.

Our generations may look different, and may inhabit different worlds, but we must be grounded by tradition. Then we will be able to go forth into unfamiliar surroundings and find the proper way to continue fixing the world.

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