Welcome to a new year and to what I hope already feels like your home! As with any home, a lot has gone into building this one, both literally (in the original sense of the word as opposed to the new usage) and figuratively. You will soon be immersed in the history and traditions of our Duke community, and those who have been here for any length of time are eager to continue passing down the many traditions they have learned from others. This isn’t just about the “Unofficial Graduation Requirements” (you’ll see more of those columns in the Spring and some of them are more than a little risky). This is about what it means to become part of this community and take part in those traditions.
Traditions can have a tremendous weight since, in many ways, they are the foundations of our diverse campus groups and organizations. They are a valuable connection to our collective past and often a fantastic guide towards our future. Since that is a future we all have a share in, one of the ways we do our part is by adapting traditions in ways that work for each successive generation. In this, we all have a tremendous opportunity since a generation at a university is a very short length of time! Something that was new three years ago is already “the way we have always done it” to the majority of the student body, and “the way we have always done it” is a powerful force. We have the ability to build on old traditions annually.
Writing as the campus rabbi, I know a little bit about the weight of tradition, as well as the importance of appropriate change when necessary. I recognize and celebrate that the Jewish tradition continues to change, grow and evolve in ways that would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors 3,000 years ago. That our faith evolves and continues to remain both grounded in tradition while not losing any modern relevance is part of the Jewish tradition, and I would argue that the tradition is stronger for that.
This is illustrated in a story in the Talmud (The Oral Law that was written in different pieces between the years 200 A.D. and 500 A.D.) about Moses asking God about the specific way the Torah (The Written Law) is written. There is a special version of Hebrew used to write a Torah scroll, and many of the letters have flourishes or “crowns” written on them. God explains that there is meaning even in the crowns. He shows Moses a vision of the study hall of Rabbi Akiva, a great sage of the first and second century who is teaching Torah many centuries after Moses. But as he walks through the study hall, Moses is only able to understand the discussions of the students in the very back row where the least advanced students were learning. Everything seems incomprehensible to Moses, yet he then hears Rabbi Akiva describe the principles being explained as “The Law handed down to Moses at Sinai.” Moses is comforted; what he was given and taught had not only endured, but grown over time.
That brings us to this week, the first week of classes for this academic year. This weekend is the second year of “First Big Weekend” with university sponsored programming across different departments and centers. Soon this will be part of our enduring tradition and will be “the way we have always done it.” And that is one of our strengths.
On Saturday morning, we will be reading the final Torah portion of this Jewish year in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the coming Jewish New Year beginning Wednesday night. In this Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, the Jewish people stand together as a community and are reminded that the Tradition has been given to them, is in their hands and will be a birthright and heritage for all time. The Tradition has been given not only to be passed down to further generations but so that people will and can live by it as an active part of their daily lives. It is not meant to be hidden or made into something mysterious, but, rather, an accessible truth that informs our thoughts and actions. As our lives are different in the modern era than they were in ancient times, so has the tradition evolved with us.
Everyone who is reading this has a stake in his or her inheritance here. We all have things that have been passed down to us by those who have gone before. We know that these things have mattered to those who have gone before us, and now we need to make sure that they matter to us. The many institutional and personal histories here have been given to us to grapple with and understand as we continue to shape new traditions for the future. The same way our families have built our homes for us to this point, we build our homes for the future.
Duke will always be a home for us, and we have a right and responsibility to ensure that the foundations of our home remain strong. The traditions we inherit and the traditions we create add to that strength, so let us always work together to ensure that we only go from strength to strength in creating our own legacies of traditions that are healthy, enduring and positive.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.