Dialogue with the Past
Among all the societies where Jews have lived, America has been least conducive to maintaining a sense of the past. A building from thirty years ago can be a historic landmark; kitchenware from forty years ago qualifies as antique. Objects from the past are allowed to have a fashionable revival but ideas, stories, and concepts from the past are considered outmoded.
The culture of newness is not new in America, and it has been good for Jews as people. New arrivals tend not to be treated according to their background but welcomed according to their present condition and future outlook. Most Jews who came to America were happy to forget the old country and move forward in the new land. But what has been good for Jews as individuals has often not been good for Judaism. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Without solidarity with our fathers, the solidarity with our brothers will remain feeble. The vertical unity of Israel [meaning the Jews as a nation] is essential to the horizontal unity of klal yisrael [the Jewish people as a whole]… Survival of Israel means that we carry on our independent dialogue with the past… By treating lightly that which has been created throughout the ages, we can easily forfeit that which is spiritually reliable. (“To Be a Jew: What is It?” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)
Heschel perhaps had in mind the words of this week’s Torah reading:
Remember the days of old
Consider the years of ages past
Ask your father, and he shall tell you
Your elders, and they shall declare it to you
Forgetting the past is not a problem only in our day. The Torah, in this week’s parashahh, records Moses saying these words to his people in order to ensure that the story of God’s protection of the Israelites would continue to be told. The telling of the story was necessary in order to awaken in every generation a sense of gratitude to God Who “Found them in a wilderness land, a waste, a howling desert, and guarded them like the pupil of His eye, like an eagle protecting its nest.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)
This week’s parashahh falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are times for remembering. Rosh Hashanah is also known by the name Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance — as is often repeated in the Mahzor, a day of asking God to remember, to record us in the book of life. Yom Kippur is also connected with remembrance — among other reasons, because of Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead.
Yet Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not substitute for “asking our elders and they shall declare it to you.” Younger generations need to seek the teachings of Judaism from older generations; older generations need to tell their teachings to the younger. In order for this to work, elders need to overcome any preconceptions that the young are not interested, and the young need to overcome any preconceptions that the elders are not interesting. Elders who feel that they themselves have not received enough stories and traditions to transmit can encourage their young people seek out people and books from whom they can learn.
The High Holy Days do not do their work if we limit ourselves to personal introspection. These days can only be effective for Jews as a people if we seek what Heschel called the vertical unity of Israel — the connection with those who have come before us. Judaism cannot be stuck in the past, but neither can it discard it. Tomorrow makes sense only in the context of yesterday.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.