When we first came to our synagogue, the mechitza was quite low. After a number of years at the shul, once we had earned the trust of the congregation, we broached the subject of raising the mechitza to normative standards.
“If it was good enough all these years,” asked one senior member, “what suddenly changed?”
The Mishnah states that a dried-out lulav is invalid. The Gemara quotes Rabbi Yehuda who contends that it is acceptable to use a dried-out lulav. He further tells of a number of towns where people would bequeath their lulavim to their grandchildren!
“That’s your proof?” ask the rabbis incredulously, “You can’t bring a proof from tough times!”
In other words, those townsfolk reused their lulavim due to a scarcity in the lulav supply. But under normal circumstances, one would not be permitted to reuse a lulav, because it must be fresh, in order to fulfil the dictum recited by the Israelites at the Red Sea, “This is my G-d and I shall beautify Him.”
By the time Orthodox Judaism became a real force in North America, the established Jewish community had come to be dominated by the newer, more liberal denominations. And so the fight for tradition was an uphill battle. Any rabbi that could get any semblance of tradition into the synagogue would take whatever he could. On those terms, just like the short supply of lulavim, any mechitza was good enough.
But, thank G-d, we live in a time that we no longer need to struggle to maintain our traditional sanctuaries, the way our forebears were forced to fifty years ago. Today, we can ‘make the bracha over a fresh lulav,’ without relying on the need to cut corners and compromise due to “tough times.”
Similarly in our private religious lives: A generation or two ago, it may have been acceptable to ‘check the ingredients’ to determine whether a product was kosher or not. Today, we are fortunate to have rabbis who routinely go into the factories and scrupulously determine how the product has been manufactured. The same is true of so many of our religious practices that may have been previously condoned. Now, we can finally return to our earlier standards.
And yet some of us are still caught in a time warp. We feel that we’ve always done it this way and we ask why everybody has all of a sudden become so “farfrumt” (overly pious). Believe it or not, the way that we might have ‘always’ done things during our lifetimes and those of our parents and grandparents was an anomalous innovation! Oftentimes we learned to ‘grin and bear it’ – to make serious compromises in our religious practices – in order not to rock the boat and maintain tradition in a hostile environment. But that doesn’t mean that we are forever doomed to settle for second best.
Don’t get bogged down by ‘traditions’ and ‘practices’ that are relatively new innovations! Many of these were simply concessions your forebears begrudgingly accepted for want of a better solution. Today you have the opportunity to serve the Almighty in the most pristine way possible. You can live a life dedicated to Torah and mitzvos – interacting openly and freely with the modern world – that your grandparents could only ever have dreamed of!