Earlier this week, in an attempt to gain some space in my crowded apartment, I was going through some old records and discarding many of them. Uncertain about whether or not to keep some of them, I found myself guided by my mother-in-law’s advice: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
And so, although with some hesitation, I tossed into the trash folders containing my children’s report cards from thirty or more years ago, letters of congratulations at various family milestones, and letters of condolences that I received while sitting shiva for my dear departed parents.
About an hour after consigning those precious mementos to oblivion, I began to have second thoughts. I realized that I had chosen to eliminate documents of exquisite personal meaning. I had succumbed to the modern temptation to live only in the present and to ignore, nay suppress, the important role of the past in our lives. Luckily, I was able to retrieve these records, and restored them to their rightful place in my personal archives.
These days, we must vigilantly resist this growing and powerful tendency to live only in the moment and for the moment. We dare not forget the importance of the past, and yes, the future, upon our contemporary existence. Today’s culture has aptly been called “ahistoric”, and the loss of a historical perspective has taken its toll upon our society and upon each of us as individuals.
An excellent example of this anti-historical attitude is expressed in a passage in the writings of Hebrew author Haim Hazaz. I am indebted to Professor Yosef Yerushalmi’s book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, for this splendid illustration. Hazaz puts the following words in the mouth of his character, Yudka: “I want to state that I am opposed to Jewish history. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. I would just say to them, ‘Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land, we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.’”
This attitude is personified by the hero, or perhaps better, the anti-hero, of this week’s Torah portion, Bilaam. He is described as one who “knows the mind of the Almighty”. The Talmud wonders about this and suggests that Bilaam is able to determine the one brief instant of each day when the Almighty is angry. As the Psalmist has it, “Regah b’apo chayim birtzono”. “His anger is for a moment, but his favor is for a lifetime.”
In a typically brilliant and provocative insight, Rav Kook suggests that there are two modes in which the Divine operates. There is the constant goodness, peace, light, and life that comprise the mode “netzach”, “eternity”. And then there are the transient moments when God, as it were, displays His fury, permits evil to get the upper hand, and allows strife, pestilence and war. That is the mode of “rega”, the “moment”.
Fortunate are those human beings who can connect and draw from God’s mode of “netzach”. Beware those human beings who relate only to God’s “rega” mode. Bilaam is the biblical archetype of the person who isolates present as all-important and denies both the past and the future.
In Rav Kook’s terms, this week’s Torah episode describes a confrontation between a people rooted in history, conscious of its past and proud of it, aware of its future and inspired by it, versus the villain Bilaam, who would excise past and future and condemn us only to the transience of fleeting time. It is the battle between “netzach yisrael”, an eternal people, and a people without tradition and without hope.
Jewish tradition teaches us that our past is very much a part of who we are in the “here and now.” Our religion is nothing if not a historical religion. Our personal lives are trivialized to the extent that we do not connect to both our recent past and our millennia-long history.
Permit me to relate these reflections to a very contemporary concern, and to express yet one more criticism of President Barack Obama’s recent address to the Muslim world. In describing the Jewish people’s claim to the land of Israel, he only mentioned the relationship between the horror of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. He neglected to put our claim to the Holy Land in proper historical perspective. For us, the Holocaust is part of our present moment – its survivors are still alive among us. What legitimizes our claim to the land of Israel is our millennia-long bond with that land, one which goes back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and which has ancient biblical roots.
There is a lesson here for us as a people and for each of us as struggling mortals. The Jewish people cannot survive in this world if our legitimacy as a nation is limited to the here and now. We are an ancient people and must proudly assert the power of our past and not forget the promise of our future.
And as individual human beings coping with the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of daily existence, we are also lost if we limit our temporal perspectives to today. We must be informed and influenced by yesterday, and we must enthusiastically anticipate tomorrow.