Visiting my old haunts in the United States naturally engenders within me memories, reminiscences and nostalgia. There is the joy of knowing all of the good things that occurred to me in these places and being thankful for them. However, there also is the clear realization that the past is gone and there is little use in dwelling on incidents and events long gone.
Looking back is important but one should never allow it to be a stultifying experience, preventing present growth or future planning and goals. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra once wrote: “The past is gone; the present is fleeting; and the future has not yet arrived!” By this he meant, the true observation is that one is always living in a limbo of time, where what we deem to be reality is truly most temporary and fleeting. Instead of dwelling on the past and future, one should set one’s sights and mindset on dealing with the eternal and infinite.
In an ironically true fashion it is only the infinite and the eternal that is truly reality. In assessing this truth one can find direction for one’s future and escape from the sometimes dangerous morass of nostalgia over one’s past. I am also aware that my view of the past is a clouded and biased one. Some things that I once saw in a certain focus now appear to me in a completely different light and understanding.
The good old days may never have been as good as I once imagined and, in fact. the “bad days” I experienced may have proven to be far more beneficial for me than I originally thought. The distance of time passed and different location allows for clearer perspective of people, places and events.
Much of the Jewish religious world suffers from an unhealthy attachment to an imagined and inaccurate understanding of its past. Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before World War II has been sanitized and romanticized with a thick layer of nostalgia and wishful thinking. All of the sadness and poverty, persecution and hapless secularization of Eastern European Jewry has been glossed over by legends, fanciful stories and hagiographic biographies that dehumanize the subjects about whom they are written.
With all that has happened to us taken into account, I still think that the Jewish people as a whole, and the place of Torah and ritual observance within Jewish society, is significantly stronger now than it was a century ago. Of course the State of Israel, even with all of its imperfections and problems, has a great deal to do with this strengthening of the Jewish people. But, be this as it may be, looking backward with false vision is a serious impediment to necessary improvements, changes and spiritual growth in the fleeting present and the unknown, not-yet-arrived future.
Knowing our past is an essential ingredient for our productive present and better future. But the correct perspective and realistic view must be present in order to make that looking-back exercise meaningful, accurate and productive.
Europe is one vast Jewish graveyard. The fascination of Jews with graves and graveyards has always been somewhat perplexing to me. The great master of Kabalah, Rabbi Yitzchak Lutia Ashkenazi (The Holy Ari) wrote that one should not visit graves unnecessarily - when there is no commandment to do so – and that graves begat spiritual defilement.
In any event, graves are a definite form of looking backward. And usually the visions that graves inspire within us are fuzzy, unfocused and many times wildly inaccurate. The popular visits and tours to Eastern Europe are very heartbreaking to my way of thinking. Instead of seeing the empty Jewish buildings of Eastern Europe why not concentrate on seeing and supporting the great Torah institutions of today in Israel, America and other Jewish places in the world.
Nostalgia is never a building block for a strong future. Overindulgence in looking back forces past errors to somehow be repeated and future plans to be based on erroneous readings of past policies. And, the great unknown is what the leaders of the past would say and do if they lived in the present. No one can be certain of this and therefore projecting past opinions on present circumstances is wildly inappropriate. The fleeting present demands strong nerves and clear vision. These virtues are not likely to be obtained by wallowing in a nostalgic fuzz of wishful memory.