Humans have always been different from other animals in that we can transmit information and knowledge across both time and space. Inventions that improve our ability to do this have generally caused revolutionary changes in culture and power. In ancient Judaism, the stories of our ancestors were originally passed from one person to another. The invention of writing caused a major change – now the stories, which used to be fluid to at least some extent, could be codified into an authoritative version. This happened in the shift to Rabbinic Judaism as well, during which the oral conversations of scholars became frozen in time.
When we study text, we study layer upon layer of frozen narrative, commentary, and conversations. We mine these texts from within our own contexts in order to defrost them, and bring their wisdom into the present. In this way, we engage in conversations with individuals we have never met, whose lives were so different from our own that we can barely imagine their experiences.
Despite these differences, human universals haven’t changed. We still experience conflict and resolution internally and interpersonally. We still navigate social and political landscapes with varying degrees of skill and comfort. We still laugh and cry, and feel shame, guilt, joy, and pain. We still tell stories about ourselves and others. We still eat, drink, share, steal, love and die.
In this week’s Parsha, Tetzaveh, we read about the concept of a Ner Tamid – an eternal light. When these words were first spoken, the idea of a light that never went out was impossible. Sure, you could keep a fire burning indefinitely, but everyone knew that without someone feeding it, it could (would) go out. Chances were that it would not burn forever. Today we actually have the technology to more or less keep a light on forever. The symbol of an eternal light in its original form was about divine presence – a reminder that only the divine could make something so impossible a reality. Despite the updated technology, the symbol still carries this meaning – it reminds us of everything outside our own experience, of things that are everlasting, unchanging, including human nature.
Judaism is rich with complex ideas like this. We read words frozen in time and recreate their meaning every time we read them. We acknowledge the changes in culture we see all around us, while at the same time reminding ourselves that there are things about us, and about the universe, that are eternal.