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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Reflections at 60 I

Galilee Diary #392, June 1, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back;
Renew our days as of old.
   -Lamentations 5:21

Had it not been for the affair of the snake and the apple, we would still be living in Eden today. And while seen through our knowing eyes after millennia of human experience, that option seems like it might have been boring, still, it is hard to avoid feeling a sense of loss at our expulsion from Paradise. It is not difficult to feel nostalgia for a life with no struggle, no conflict, no hardship, a life in a place of beauty, harmony, and plenty. And so we look forward to a restoration. We haven't accepted the loss as final, but live in anticipation of some kind of return – either after death, or in the end of days.

It seems that this motif of anticipated return to a lost utopia is a recurring one. We carry around images of a glorious past, of the good old days, when life was better, simpler, braver. The world has been in a constant state of decline throughout history. Once, families were families, communities were communities, and men were men. Once, farmers lived in harmony with nature and recycled everything. Once, Jews lived according to the Torah. Once, we were a glorious kingdom ruled by a powerful king who was also a singer of sweet Psalms. Once, we had leaders worthy of the name, and everyone knew his/her place in the social order – and every nation knew its place in the world order. Once, the land flowed with milk and honey.

And indeed, the farther we get from this lost utopia, the more intensely we long for its restoration. Hardly an hour of the Jewish day goes by without some reminder, in prayer or figure of speech or custom, of our being in a state of exile from the historical utopia where kings ruled and priests sacrificed and every man sat under his vine and his fig tree with none to make him afraid. We wait, patiently and not so patiently, for God's mercy to kick in, so that He will forgive us for the sins that led to this great loss. We suffer an only sometimes bearable present, a messy reality of struggle and compromise, of often inexplicable suffering, of inescapable dilemmas of moral responsibility – and the only reason we can hold on and keep our values and our bearings is the hope for the restoration, the belief that the cycle of history will turn and the past and future utopia will become present.

The trouble is, sometimes your collective memory plays tricks on you. Sometimes, it seems, determining what the past was really like is not so simple. Indeed, maybe we need to admit that on occasion, our memory of the past is influenced by our vision of the future and not the other way around. Moreover, we know from our own biblical experience that it is possible to feel nostalgic for even the most miserable past. Remember Mrs. Lot, who couldn't tear herself away from Sodom. And the children of Israel, who, as they confronted the reality of their desert excursion, were suddenly nostalgic for the good old days of slavery in Egypt. A few centuries later, Jeremiah refers to the desert wandering as a honeymoon, when the people and God were in harmony. The perceived certainty of the past often seems to trump the unknown future or the unstable present.

In the next few entries I will explore the impact of our memories of Israel's past on our vision of the modern state of Israel.

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