Preservation, Innovation and Vandalism.



Eliezer Shemtov


I want to share with you, dear reader, an interesting experience I recently had in Glen Canyon, Arizona.


In order to better appreciate its unique beauty, my wife and I joined a boat tour that traveled down the Colorado River, flowing between its rock formations. On the way, we made a stop and disembarked on a riverbank to get a closer look at things. It was very interesting to hear about the native flora and the plants imported from Kazakhstan in order to solve certain ecological problems that ended up creating new problems.


One of the interesting attractions we saw is a wall on which are engraved petroglyphs, drawings of animals chiseled into the rock by the natives. They are thought to be between 3,000 and 5,782 years old. In themselves are not so different to the untrained eye than the many others found in many parts of the world. A distinctive feature in this case is that it has the name TRENT carved between the images. It turns out that in 2010 Trent decided it would be a "cool" idea to carve his name there. That idea cost him a $10,000 fine for violating a national treasure of historical and archaeological value. If he were to do it a second time, he could end up paying up to $100,000 and spending up to five years in jail.


Why was this episode so interesting to me?


I imagined Trent the graffiti artist defending himself by arguing that the wall belongs to everyone and that he has the same right to express himself as the strangers who chose to express themselves thousands of years ago by carving images of their livestock on the wall. What difference does it make? Aren't we all the same, with the same rights? They have their truth and I have mine!


Perhaps he would be right were it not for the fact that their descendants exist today and maintain their tradition as to the meaning of those images. No; they are not the same kind of expressions. Theirs is an expression that has value in one system and Trent's in another. He may have the right to express himself, but let him do it on another wall without invading the space of others, consecrated by thousands of years of tradition.


At some point, the guide pointed to a symbol and explained that there is a difference of opinion among the local tribes, descendants of those original tribes, as to its meaning. I suggested that it seemed to me to symbolize something totally different from the two traditional interpretations. "Perhaps," the guide said with a smile.


I thought to myself... Could it be? Really? It may be that my interpretation is very interesting, but hard to say that that is what the individual who recorded it thousands of years ago thought. Interesting, perhaps, but far from the truth. "Interesting" isn't necessarily synonymous with "truth"....


But, of course. To the guide it was nothing more than a story; someone else's story. Imagine if the guide were to be a member of the aforementioned tribes, she would not be so indifferent to the creativity of my interpretation regarding her ancestor's intentions. It would even be offensive. Yes, I can say what it represents to me, but it would colossally disrespectful to suggest that this was surely what her ancestor had in mind, despite the millennia-old traditions in this regard that say otherwise.


There is a Hebrew/Yiddish term for this, difficult to translate accurately: Chutzpah.


How can you compare a thousand-year old engraving with archaeological value with graffiti? Both are human expressions, to be sure, but there is much more to it than that!


I often have conversations with people that sound like Trent. "Our traditions need to be respected but at the same time they need to be updated," they say. "We also have the right to think and act according to our judgements." They then go on to substantiate their position with very intelligent, creative and interesting arguments. There is only one detail that is missing, however: the truth.


There is no problem with everyone interpreting the meaning that our traditions have according to their personal opinions. But to redefine the very foundations and systems consecrated throughout millennia, is more than mere Chutzpah; it is outright dangerous.


The essence and raison d'être of the Jewish people and of each and every one of its members is defined by the Torah. It is because of what the Torah means to us that we live by its principles, exist as a people and celebrate our relationship with it. By misrepresenting the truths of the Torah, the very raison d'être, existence and future of the Jewish individual, family, community and people as such is jeopardized.


And the victims of such experiments, however blameless and however well-intentioned they may be, when they reach positions of community leadership, oblivious to the implications of their decisions, continue to perpetuate this downward spiral.


Their initiatives may be "cool", according to their taste, but they are still nothing more than graffiti that violate the beauty, value and sacredness of our age-old, non-negotiable identity.


There is nothing wrong with wanting to be creative and "cool"; quite the contrary. You just have to make sure that innovation does not replace or contradict the truth.


Chabad is always at the forefront of showing how it is possible to achieve novel and cool proposals without losing authenticity. We invite you to join us.


Take, for example, the precept of Hakhel, the special theme of this post-Sabbatical year. It is a Biblical precept which has not been fulfilled for centuries due to the lack of a king and because the Temple of Jerusalem was in ruins.


The Rebbe —may his merit protect us— taught us how Hakhel can be observed within the limits of the pre-Messianic reality in which we presently live.


The soul of the precept of Hakhel is to fortify our connection to the Torah and to relive in some way the experience we had as a people at the foot of Mount Sinai. While we cannot fulfill the precept literally until a king is installed and the Temple is rebuilt, we can fulfill the precept in its essence. Each of us is a "king", exerting influence in a particular circle of family, friends, students, etc. In the year of Hakhel we can leverage our position of influence to inspire and fortify all those within our spheres of influence in terms of strengthening their commitment to live their lives in a way that reflects the will of the King of the Universe in whose image and likeness we were all create.


With best wishes for a Shanah Tovah Umetukah.


Eliezer