It was the kind of thing you would hear from old men. "Things just ain't the way they used to be." "This new generation is going to hell in a handbasket." "I remember when things were different and better, back in the good old days!"
Now that I am becoming a bit older myself, I find that I sometimes parrot some of those phrases. Increasingly, my attitude has become negative and critical of the contemporary world around me. It is at such moments that I feel convinced that things were indeed much better in the past, and certainly much different.
My tendency to value the past over the present is especially marked when it comes to reflecting upon leadership phenomena. It is easy to say that presidents and prime ministers were once great statesman and that the individuals now holding those positions are at best mediocre. Authors, poets, artists, and even the composers of days gone by definitely seem superior to individuals currently in those roles.
It is especially in the area of religion that the past took on an aura of holiness, of grandeur, of purity, that seems to be totally absent in today's religious world. It is easy to come up with the names of fifteen or twenty outstanding rabbis in the previous generation or two, or even three. It is hard to find more than a few in today's generation.
Is this attitude, which I suspect is prevalent even among individuals far younger than me, fair? Is it correct? Or is it based upon nostalgic memories which distort the realities of the past, as well as the conditions of the present? Dare I even speculate that this attitude stems from a cynicism which, some would say, is typical of older people?
Personally, I have found correctives for this attitude in my own experience and in my Torah study.
My personal experience was fortunately blessed by my acquaintance with a number of older men, among whom I count my own and my wife's grandfathers, who all felt that the current generation was in many ways superior to the earlier generations that they knew. In their conversations, they not only did not glorify the past, but well remembered that past generations had their own blemishes, some of which were quite severe.
This week's Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tavo, opens with the mitzvah to bring the first fruits of one's new harvest to "the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name," (Deuteronomy 26:2), which we know eventually was designated as Jerusalem. The next verse continues, "You shall go to the kohen (priest) in charge at that time..." After reciting the proper recitations, the fruits were given to that kohen.
Rashi notes how very odd it is that we are told to bring those fruits to the kohen "in charge at that time." To what other kohen could we possibly have given them? To the kohen of a time gone by?
To those of us who were paying careful attention to the Torah portion that we read just two weeks ago, Shoftim, this question sounds very familiar. For in that parsha, we encountered two similar phrases, not with reference to the kohen, but with regard to the judges whom we consult.
Thus, we read that we were to "appear before... the magistrate in charge at that time, and present your problem" (Deuteronomy 17:9). Later in that same parsha, we learned that "the two parties to the dispute shall appear... before the magistrates in authority at that time" (Deuteronomy 19:17).
The Talmud derives a powerful lesson from these three phrases which all stress "... at that time." The lesson is that we are not to denigrate the judges or priests of our time. We are not to say that the judges of yore were well-suited to their positions, but that the judges of our own times are inferior and indeed unqualified. Jephtha, the leader of a rag tag group of warriors, was for his generation every bit as qualified to be a judge as was Samuel, the prophet of an earlier time.
I have always understood this teaching to mean that it is futile to compare the leaders of one generation to those of another. Each generation has its own special character and unique requirements, and the leaders who emerge, especially in the religious sphere, are precisely the ones most appropriate for that generation. As Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, whose 76th yahrzeit we recently commemorated, put it, "Every generation shines with its own qualities."
If this lesson applies to what our attitude should be to the judges of our time, how much more it applies to what should be our proper attitude toward the contemporary kohen. We are not to say that the kohanim of yesteryear were spiritually worthy of offering the priestly blessings, whereas today's kohen is unqualified to do so. Rather, we ought to follow Maimonides' ruling that everyone born a kohen is fit to utter the priestly blessing "even if he is not learned, not punctilious in his observance of mitzvot, and even if there are persistent rumors about him." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 15:6).
I close by quoting the words of the wisest of old men, indeed, the wisest of all men, King Solomon:
"The end of a matter is better than the beginning of it.
Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit...
Don't say, 'How has it happened that former times were better than these?'
For is not wise of you to ask that question." (Ecclesiastes 7:8-10)