The Torah reading of this week concerns itself with the tasks of the Priests in the Temple, regarding the sacrifices which were the centerpiece of the entire Temple service. The instructions that are given to the Priests are exact and detailed. In fact, the Hebrew word “tzav” which appears at the beginning of the reading and is where the Parsha gets its name, indicates a command.
The strength of the word is that it is not a matter of negotiation, suggestion, or persuasion. It is simply a command that must be heeded and fulfilled. Part of the problem that always exists regarding religious worship service is that there is little room left for changing times and society that might influence the structure of the command itself.
To a great extent, for instance, Jewish prayer service, which inherited aspects of the sacrifices in the Temple, has basically remained the same from the time of Ezra to our day. Naturally, it has been tweaked and adjusted, and prayers have been added and deleted as per the custom of the different Jewish communities scattered throughout the exile. However, it is the consistency of the prayer service itself, and the retention of its basic structure by all communities and groups, that Jewish life survived over the long centuries of persecution, and exile.
It is not that innovation is necessarily contrary to established prayer service. It is, rather, that over the centuries, very few innovations have been able to attract more worshipers or more Jews, to be of true spiritual value and of lasting quality and interest. The problem with innovation, as with all things modern and current and up to date, is that in the society dedicated to the new and to innovation, almost automatically introduces ideas and practices that become obsolete in a very short period of time. They do not have staying power, and Judaism is always built for the long run and not for the short moments of seeming pleasure or current correctness.
Traditional Jewish prayer has often been accused by the modernists as being too rigid, and without proper flash and excitement. Non-Orthodox movements constantly change their prayer books to reflect current events over the years, and decades that are the here and now of that society. However, any objective observer of these changes can testify that all the innovation: guitars, women cantors, political quotations, and other innovations that are part of modernistic local prayer services, have proven to be unable to attract worshipers to the synagogue and to any form of intense and meaningful prayer.
Tampering with the old and creating the new has, in effect, destroyed the true concept of Jewish prayer and the spiritual satisfaction that one can gain only with the authentic words of prayer, that have been part of Jewish life for thousands of years. This is the essence of being commanded. It tolerates no major deviations, and by its consistency and historic resonance, creates spiritual connection and the pursuit of holiness. Couple this with the fact that Hebrew as a language does not easily translate into other languages, and that all sense of nuance is usually lost, no matter how good the translation may be, one can, understand why Judaism insists on prayer in its original language and in its original formal form and substance.
Rabbi Berel Wein