As a mother, a teacher and a rabbi, I am aware that what I do can sometimes pack a greater wallop than what I say. If the two aren't consistent, if I am urging one kind of behavior but indulging in another, I know that the impact of my message is diminished. In fact it's been my experience, that it is my actions that do speak much louder than even my most eloquent words.
This came to mind this week as I was looking over the first chapter of Pirke Avot, the special book of the Mishnah, that Jews traditionally study during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The first chapter speaks the language of conformity and continuity. It stresses the idea of tradition, the sense that what is taught today comes, in a straight line, from that which Moses heard from the divine voice on Mt Sinai. " Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua handed it down to the elders, and the elders ...view middle of the document...
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel doesn't teach the same thing as his father, Rabbi Gamliel. Shemayah doesn't teach the same thing as his teacher Judah ben Tabbai. Sometimes they created a sort of "riff" on the teachings of those who came before . Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, was certainly aware of the teaching of Shimon the Righteous, one of the last of the Great Assembly, that "the world depends on three things Torah, Worship and Acts of Loving Kindness", when he taught: "the World depends on three things Truth, Judgment and Peace". Sometimes the rabbis seem to be skirting conflict: Antigonus, incidentally one of a small group of rabbis with Greek names, taught- "Don't be like those who would serve the master on the condition that they would receive a reward. Rather, be like those who would serve without that condition" while three generations later Nittai the Arbelite taught: "Don't give up on the reality of divine retribution". The rabbis differed in the topics they addressed: courtroom procedure, relations with the government, good manners in teacher and students, family issues. And sometimes they out and out disagreed. The official message of the book is conformity, but the message of the text itself is individuality.
I think this first chapter of Pirke Avot can help us as moderns dealing with an ancient tradition. We want to remain connected, we want to be part of the chain. But we don't need to be afraid to speak in our own voices.
One of the famous Hasidic stories about succession, tells of a rabbi who succeeded his father and was constantly criticized for not doing things the way his father did them. "Why do you not conduct yourself like your father, the late Rabbi?" his Chassidim asked Rabbi Noah, Rebbe at Lekhivitz. "I do conduct myself like him" retorted Rabbi Noah, "He did not imitate anybody and I likewise do not imitate anybody."
Adam, I know that this issue of asking your own questions of an old tradition is very important to you and I hope you will continue to feel empowered to add your own comments to our ongoing chain of tradition.