Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of December 8-14, 2013


By Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, PhD, AJRCA Professor of Talmud


What kind of rabbi are you?

My characteristic response to this question would go something like this…”I am an orthodox rabbi in terms of my personal observance, serving a Conservative congregation, of which most members are Reform.”

Whatever this answer may have lacked in theological profundity, it probably made up for in terms of pragmatic reality. 

In truth, I never liked any of the three most popular denominational labels, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.  The phrase I felt most comfortable with when describing myself was “Traditional”, and G. K. Chesterton (in his book entitled, “Orthodoxy”) provides us with a pithy, yet powerful, definition of the word “Tradition”.

“Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  It is a democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to man being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”

Powerful words, are they not? And they are truthful words as well.

Just imagine how impoverished our lives would be if we were limited to only the present tense.  The wisdom of the past, and the artistic contributions of men and women of genius no longer alive are too sacred, precious, and beautiful for us to fail to appreciate.

Should our loved ones cease to be a part of our lives simply because they are no longer living?  They are with us with every breath we draw, they are joined to us whenever we intone the words of Kaddish and Yizkor and whenever we celebrate significant familial milestones in our lives.  The power and magic of memory reunites us with them.

What kind of rabbi am I?  What kind of Jew are you?  Instead of responding with a party-line identification label, perhaps the best answer is encompassed in the word, “Tradition”.  After all, tradition affords us the deepest and richest way to live our lives.  It bestows upon us the blessing of continuity.

When the prophet Elisha’s servant panicked upon beholding the troops of Aram poised to attack, exclaiming, “My master, what shall we do?”,  the prophet replied, “Fear not, rabim asher itanu measher etam (Those that are with us are more numerous than those that are with them)”.

“Tradition” affords one the protective companionship of vast multitudes from many generations.  “Tradition” enabled our ancestors to survive the servitude in Egypt foretold and foreshadowed in this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi.

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