Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Serving Hashem, Mitzvot and Repentance
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

Tevet 5768
I have just finished packing my suitcases for a short visit to the United States to participate at a joyous occasion - the wedding of a grandson. I always am annoyed at myself while I am packing my suitcase for any trip for I invariably take along items that I will not use or have any necessity for their presence with me during my stay away from home. But being the cautious traveler that I pride myself as being, I always say to myself perhaps an occasion will arise when I can really make use of this tie, shirt, extra sweater, etc. So my suitcase is loaded to the gills. I know that many of the items therein are completely superfluous but nevertheless there they are. Some of this caution stems from an experience when I was a guest speaker at a very prestigious affair being held in an Ivy League college’s law school auditorium and to my horror I realized that I had forgotten my suit jacket! Determined not to be caught up short like that again I now always take along an extra suit, fully realizing that I am probably not going to wear it at all when I arrive at my destination. Human nature is not easily overcome by reality or practicality. It is the "maybe I will somehow need it" syndrome that governs this packing activity of mine. Since most of life is itself only a "maybe" type of existence, I am not especially embarrassed by my chronic overpacking for forthcoming trips.

The Jewish people, individually and collectively, have traveled over the entire world for millennia. Some of the trips were voluntary journeys of immigration to lands of better conditions and opportunities. Many of them were coerced journeys forced upon us by expulsions from countries where we had resided for centuries. In the luggage of our historic suitcases the Torah, our traditions and values were always packed and accompanied us. But in the nature of human beings, our luggage also contained items that were not really necessary for our well being and survival. Customs, mores, and habits that came to us from the outside - from the countries and societies that served as our "hosts" for centuries on end. Many of these, since they were packed in our suitcases came to be regarded as being as vital to our survival as was the actual Torah itself. The wisdom of the rabbis was and is that the Jewish people must safeguard the baby - the Torah - even when it means that we are also carrying around a great deal of bathwater with it as well. Thus folkways that may originally never have been of Jewish origin have become hallowed in Jewish life and experience so that they are today part of the very fabric of Jewish life and practice. The problem therefore never was the accumulation of bathwater, heavy and burdensome as that might be, but rather the single mindedness to preserve the baby - the Torah - to remember to bring along the jacket! And this therefore has led to the Jewish people having a lot of luggage with them wherever they went. Witness the scenes daily at Ben Gurion airport!

The unfortunate story of much of Jewish life in the eighteenth century till the present day has been the attempt to lighten our luggage, to ease our load, so to speak. In attempting to get rid of the bathwater, the baby itself was thrown out. Intermarriage, assimilation, abysmal ignorance of Judaism and core Jewish values and practices, all have lightened our luggage to the extent that we run the risk of arriving at our destination without any luggage at all. For many Jews, their bags were simply lost enroute. Because of this spiritual and social disaster, the traditional Jewish world has hunkered down and is loath to discard anything at all from our collective luggage, even items that we realize that we may never need and probably originally never belonged to us and somehow found their way into our suitcases. There have been and there are continuing efforts to discard the bathwater while preserving the baby. In order to distance ourselves from customs which are today non-Jewish the Gaon of Vilna advised disregarding even those customs that were originally Jewish but not how have become part of the non-Jewish world’s religious practices. In spite of the towering stature of the Gaon of Vilna in Jewish life, this opinion of his has in the main not been followed. Once an item is packed into our suitcase it is never easily removed and it accompanies us on all of our journeys. But the main purpose has been accomplished. The Torah and tradition, values and worldview has been preserved and is safely ensconced in our luggage. We should all be grateful for that.
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