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Looking Back To Look Forward

There is an inscription that was prominently displayed near the entrance to the original Museum of the Diaspora-Beit HaTefusot, attributed to a Hasidic master of old, that reads, “Remember the past, live in the present and have hope for the future.”

It is a fitting prelude to the opening verses of Parshat Ki Tavo (Deut. 26: 1-12) that deal with the obligation of the ordinary citizen of the Land of Israel, to bring the bikkurim offering, a gift basket of first fruits.

This celebration of a bountiful harvest does not occur in a vacuum. It is accompanied by a special reading of these opening verses that harken back to our earlier times of vulnerability and near annihilation.

This gives rise to a curious juxtaposition of moods: rejoice in a bumper crop gathered from the land but tinged with an honest reckoning of our past, invoking our ignominies and frailties.

These verses form the core of the “maggid” experience that is central to the Passover Haggadah experience. We refer to this literary and affective phenomenon as “matkhil be-genuth u’mesayeim b’shevach.” In telling our celebratory story linked to the Exodus from Egypt, we must first reference the travails and of our past and formative years.

It is precisely by appreciating from whence we have come that we can enjoy the current bountiful harvest. Our victories are not born in a vacuum and surely saw their share of setbacks and challenges on the road to success and security.

This is a unique feature of our religious mindset and earthly ethos. We are married to our past insofar as we reference it to better appreciate our current successes.

Jewish tradition in keeping with the above mentioned statement is “three tensional.”

Not to be conflated with the Orwellian Groupthink and its sordid doctrine that “whoever controls the past controls the present and whoever controls the present controls the past,” our values system pairs the past to the present, and through this retrospective exercise helps us forge our future. By referencing our previous pain we can and should better appreciate our current achievements. While this might be counterintuitive to those who avoid the rearview mirror to focus solely on what is ahead, Jewish tradition requires us to look back at where we have come from in order to celebrate the fruits of our labors.

In the words of Akavyah ben Mihallaleil from Pirkei Avot, “dah mi-ayin ba’atah ul’an atah holeich…” “Know your origins and where you are headed now, and before whom you will ultimately be required to give an accounting for your earthly enterprise.”

We dare not divorce ourselves from the total picture of our history. Failure is an event not a person. It does not define us as much as it can refine us. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, often spoke of the necessary “yeridah l’shem aliyah” — the descent and defeat necessary for the ultimate ascent from adversity and its attending victories and advances in life.

This lesson from the Torah portion’s opener is an essential part of the healthy Jewish mindset.

We are “steeled by adversity” in the words of the historian Salo Baron. We might look askance at and ignore the symbolism of the dollar bills taped to a business’ office wall near the cash register which reminds the proprietor of his/her first sales in a nascent enterprise; but they are a fitting reminder of the early, often hungry years. I knew of a family that had permanently parked a rusty old pickup truck in front of their palatial home, reminding them of their humble beginnings and early struggles. It was a monument and testament to their perseverance.

At this time in the Jewish calendar, as we approach the New Year we are engaged in a process of purposeful healing. For seven Shabbats, the sheva d’nichamta, in the aftermath of Tisha B’Av and its mournful legacy, we read Haftarot with prophetic portions from Isaiah, in order to heal and grow.

When Napoleon passed by a synagogue on the ninth of Av and heard the dirges being said inside and was told that the Jews inside were mourning the destruction of their holy Temple some two thousand years earlier, his response was, “Any people who are still able to mourn this kind of loss, so many years later will surely merit to see it rebuilt.”

The word “shanah” commonly translates as “year.” But it also means to learn and review as well as to change.

Parshat Ki Tavo begins with this perspective on organic growth and recovery. When the farmer holds aloft his bikkurim basket he is being “makir tov,” expressing his gratitude and understanding of all that it took to arrive at this joyful moment. He has a nuanced sense of success. He also understands his active role in society. Link this then to the later portion of the same Torah reading that carries lengthy words of rebuke. In no uncertain terms we are told of the role we play either in the downfall and decline of society or in its growth in health and goodness. There is no absolute parallel between these details of a scorched earth society and the ravages of our current persistent pandemic, but still we cannot avoid recognition of the human hand in history and active life.

Ki Tavo then reminds us in broad relief of the mindset needed to succeed amid the challenges of life and its vicissitudes. We are very much the architects of our destiny — but only if and when we understand how the past influences and teaches us so much about the present.

Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler served in the Orthodox pulpit rabbinate for some 30 years before “retiring” to the Town of Fallsburg in the Catskills. He is the CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder care practice that helps seniors “age in place” and serves as an interim rabbi at Landfield Avenue Synagogue, in Monticello, NY, Sullivan County.

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