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Looking Backward, Moving Forward

By: Rav Uri Goldstein

Nostalgia is a powerful force in our religious lives. While we may perform rituals with a sense of halachic obligation and spiritual uplift, the manner in which we perform them often reveals a more personal side to the mitzvot:  How many of us can hear the haunting melodies of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur or taste the matzo ball soup at the Seder without longing to connect with our own past and to be transported to an earlier time in our lives? There is probably no time of year when this longing is felt more keenly than Tisha B’Av, and nowhere is this sentiment expressed so clearly as in the penultimate verse of Megillat Eicha, which is repeated at the conclusion of the reading of that book: Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venashuva, chadeish yameinu kekedem, Bring us back to You, O Lord and we will return, renew our days as of old. This pasuk  is invoked in our tefillot  throughout the year. When the Torah is returned to the aron on Shabbat and holidays (and for that matter on any other day on which the Torah is read), and at a climactic moment in the Selichot, we repeat those stirring words.

However, this seemingly simple plea, an appeal for personal repentance and national redemption rooted in a nostalgic yearning for the past, is formulated in an ironic way: When we proclaim Chadeish yameinu kekedem- renew our days as of old- we are asking God to restore a glorious past, kekedem, while simultaneously asking God to create a reality that is chadash, new. How is it possible to request both of these? Moreover, how do these words give expression to our hopes on Tisha B’Av?

A Midrashic commentary on Pershat Devarim, always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, may give us another perspective on nostalgia.  In the opening chapter of the book of Devarim, we are told that Moshe began to teach the Torah to the Children of Israel. Moshe begins his address with the following statement: “The Lord, our God, spoke to us at Horeb saying: You have stayed long enough [rav lachem] at this mountain.” This statement is genuinely anti-climactic. After building up our expectation for a statement of grand religious significance, what is delivered instead is, “You have been at Mt. Sinai long enough, and it is now time to travel.” Based on the commentary of the Midrash Sifrei we discover that this verse does, in fact, contain a fundamental lesson.

The Sifrei offers three explanations of the Hebrew word rav [which literally means: A great amount]:

1. Your time at Mt. Sinai has been greatly rewarding for you, since during this time you constructed the Mishkan, and its vessels.

2. Your time at Mt. Sinai has been greatly beneficial to you since during this time you received the Torah and appointed leadership.

3. It is bad for you [ra lachem] to remain at Mt. Sinai.

If we read all three of these interpretations together, we can find a profound lesson about the role of nostalgia in our religious lives. The time that the Jewish people spent at Mt. Sinai was formative for them as a nation: It was a time when the foundation of the nation was laid on the spiritual level with the construction of the Mishkan, on the legal level with the giving of the Torah and on the political level with appointment of leaders. It is only natural to have developed an affinity for and connection to that place, and to want to remain there as long as possible. However, had the Jewish people remained at Mt. Sinai, they would never have progressed towards their destination in the Land of Israel, and toward their destiny of being an autonomous nation in its own land. The Torah that they had learned would never be implemented and their newly appointed leaders would have no role. Therefore, the Sifrei says: Ra lachem, it is bad for you to remain at this mountain. It is time to move on, and to allow the next stage of your history to begin.

While nostalgia can be a valuable and meaningful part of our lives, there is a risk attached to it. We all have people and places to which we feel a special attachment and formative moments which continue to influence our perspective on life. It may be the memory of childhood Seders with our grandparents, or an educational institution that nurtured us intellectually and spiritually: The realization that those experiences are behind us can be deeply painful.  If, however, we remain trapped in the past, if we don’t grow, progress and develop into our own people, and perhaps more importantly, if we don’t expect our children and students to do the same, we will lose out on the opportunity to experience a life that is dynamic and full of the excitement of new discoveries.

We conclude Eicha with a plea that is rooted in this uniquely Jewish form of nostalgia. Chadesh yameinu kekedem: We live with our eyes simultaneously on the past and the future, with a deep to connection to what came before, but with the faith that what comes next will be even greater.  




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