Monday, May 20, 2013

The Power of Souvenirs, Personal and National

Last week, I heard a high school rebbe relate to his students the standard explanations for why Jews eat dairy on Shavuos, including the idea that we are meant to have a dairy meal and a meat meal in order to require separate loaves of bread, mirroring the ritual שתי הלחם, two loaves of bread brought in the Beis haMikdash on Shavuos.

One of the students challenged his rebbe on the grounds that such memorials are irrelevant; in a world that has not known such an offering for nearly two thousand years, why bother commemorating it in this way? Of course, the student meant to challenge not only this custom, but many similar commemorative customs.

My instinctive response was that we have these commemorations because we value that past and long to return to it. But then, on Shabbos, I happened to notice a small, unfinished wood night table my Rebbetzin and I have had since we got married. It was originally part of a desk in my Rebbetzin's apartment when she was in school. We took the desk apart when we moved into our first place, and this piece of it has moved with us ever since. We could easily get rid of it - it doesn't really serve much of a purpose at this point - but I feel like the souvenir anchors me.

I am not only the person I am today, I have a story, a life, a continuum and a history. I am anchored; making a decision to uproot and alter my existence would be an uprooting of more than just a moment. I am more than a cartoon on a single page in a flipbook, an individual moment connected to other individual moments creating the illusion of a narrative; my souvenir, my memories, demonstrate that I am a whole story.

Some people call such souvenirs "baggage", in a negative sense, because they can forestall necessary, refreshing change - but anchors have a positive aspect as well, keeping us from floating adrift.

Which brings me back to the two loaves of bread, and other such national souvenirs.

There are times when I wonder about the evolution of halachah and machshavah (Jewish thought), managed as it is by human beings who are doing their best to be faithful to a tradition. We are easily swayed by today's isms, all claims of fealty to masorah aside.

In the realm of modern Jewish thought, Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik were all quite clearly influenced by their philosophical contemporaries. Halachah, too, displays such influences, ואכמ"ל. And beyond the big thinkers - in hundreds of small communities around the world, despite the Internet and higher Jewish education, Judaism tends to become more or less what the rabbi of that time and place says it is. There is a sense that the inmates really can take over the asylum, overthrowing what is there overnight.

Here, too, the souvenir is valuable as an anchor. These objects and their rituals are our anchors, reminding us that we have a past, a continuum, a history, and that changing it is not an uprooting of a moment, but of a whole story. This, too, may be rejected as "baggage" - but I see great positives in the anchor as well.


  1. The problem isn't the anchors. It's when the anchors become more important than the present.

  2. Garnel-
    I have seen the problem both ways - anchors restraining necessary change, and anchors ignored.