HHD Sermon I 2019
Rabbi Benjamin David
For the longest time I imagined what it would be like to get that coveted red band. I’d lived so many summers with the meager blue band. It would sit on my wrist, year after year. There it was, when my brothers and I went to the snack bar. There it was, when we rode our bikes home, up Heartwood Drive, down Seagull Lane.
If we tried we could look across the pool and see the bigger kids with their cool red bands swimming in the deep end, jumping off the diving board. They were so mature. They carried themselves differently. They had sunglasses we would never have, haircuts we couldn’t have, and talked like we never would.
If I tried I could picture myself graduating at last to the other side of the Willowdale Pool.
Sure enough the summers passed and finally I was old enough, ten, to take the test and I took the test and I passed the test and the head lifeguard put that new band on my wrist and it sparkled in the sun like precious rubies. It promised a new beginning for me and in time for all my friends as they got their new band too.
And my little brothers, well who needed them anyway? I was ready to live the good life. My moment had come.
So now what?
I did what I was supposed to do. I went and I swam at the other end. I launched myself off the diving board. I couldn’t even see the bottom let alone reach it. I was so proud of myself. It wasn't joy; it was more than that. It was relief; it was liberation.
But also, if I was being honest, I’d say the deep end wasn't exactly what I had imagined. Sometimes I almost missed the other section of the pool. It was familiar and safe over there, literally safe, but also safe in its reliability. I liked that.
And so more and more I went back there, mainly when no one was looking, just to experience it again: those feelings of being safe and happy and comfortable, whereas the deep end was really deep and these new kids were really big and often I wasn’t sure I was ready for all of this. I wanted to go back but I knew in the end that I couldn’t go back.
This is a sermon on nostalgia. It’s a sermon about yesterday and how we choose to see it, how we choose to look back at the other side of the pool, however far away it might be and yes it’s getting further away all the time.
It’s a sermon not on history but on our relationship with our past and that feeling so many of us have, maybe you too, that those times ‘back then’ were not only fundamentally different, those times were actually better, especially as we consider the ridiculous messiness of the present, with parenting and relationships and social media and money and expectations and disappointments and politics and all of it heaped together here in the Fall of 2019.
Nostalgia is so much a part of the Jewish experience, this taking rose-colored glasses to what was. Our prayer book has us beseech God to hadash yameinu c’kedem, renew our days as before and thus take us back, at least spiritually, to another time. With our blessing after meals we recall a glorious time when Jerusalem was at peace, our Temple still standing, our people united, all of it a bit mythic.
With our Amidah, we pray that God be our shield and helper just like in the legendary days of Abraham and Sarah.
And the Talmud will raise up once and again the grandeur of our earliest rabbis, the Hillels and Akivas, reminding us at every turn that teachers like that just don’t exist anymore.
As for the Israelites of the Torah, they also romanticize their past. They have the dire chutzpah to totally mis-remember their generations of servitude as a time of bounteous feasts and luxury. Of the twelve scouts that Moses sends forward to have a look at the Promised Land, ten of them will be unable to even imagine a future there.
They are incapable of seeing a tomorrow, so entrenched are they in yesterday.
Our tradition loves the past and, more than that, it loves elevating the past.
Thus we often find ourselves presented with this big, fanciful version of what was, a time when floods raged then receded, when seas split, when food rained from the sky, when we walked for 40 years, when we lived to 120, when fish swallowed people whole but only for a little while, or how about in the last century, when a war could be won in six days, when a country could survive even when attacked on its holiest day, when a hijacked flight could be rescued due to the extraordinary courage of a singular war hero named Yoni.
Or most strikingly that a people could rise into being once more after six million of their brothers and sisters and their six million dreams were in an instant gone.
But of course we know there’s so much more to it than the glossy legends. The Six Day War of 1967 lasted far longer and is reverberating to this very day. Yoni Netanyahu had a lot of help in rescuing those Israeli families at Entebbe Airport in 1976. And as for the Holocaust, we will never quite fill the void left by those dear departed souls.
Our past is framed as a time of greater profundity, when humans were simply more and God was closer and absolutely everything was possible.
We even bring nostalgia to our relationship with the prayer book itself, as today we hold in our hands a shiny new book, hot-off-the-press. No doubt there are those among us who, quietly or maybe not so quietly, all of a sudden yearn for Gates of Repentance, Gates of Prayer, or going further still, that trusty Union Prayer Book, first published in 1892.
It was there that we found such stirring lines as: May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
You hear lines like that and are transported to another time, like another lifetime.
So many of us carry nostalgia for the yesterdays that now glimmer brighter and brighter. Maybe it’s because we were kids or maybe it’s because we just knew a little less or maybe it’s because we had the nerve to believe back then or maybe it’s because it really is true; they were the good old days.
Sometimes we do wish we could go back there, climbing right into the grainy home movie and sit there with them all those years ago, even if only for a few seconds. It was safe. It was comfortable. We were a little less jaded, and so was the world around us.
Of course it’s not just a Jewish phenomenon, this need to raise up high our past even at the peril of missing out on or maligning our present. Maybe it’s a decidedly human thing to do.
Look at the songs we of the western world know and love. The Beatles claimed that yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. BB King reminds us that the thrill is gone. The Eagles note that we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969. The Indigo Girls harp on a time when we were all closer to fine.
And how about our own Bruce Springsteen – now seventy years old – who famously sings of the glory days, well, they’ll pass you by.
Not to belabor the point but how can I give a high holy day sermon on nostalgia without including Barbara Streisand, who claims in the song Memories no less, that she remembers a time when she knew what happiness was.
But I feel that it’s Neil Young who gets it right, as let’s face it he always does, when he sings of a rather mythic time when ‘hate was just a legend, war was never known, people worked together, they lifted many stones, they carried them to the flatlands, and they died along the way, but they built up with their bare hands what we still can’t do today.’
If I were being honest I’d say I agree. I agree with all of it. My own past wasn’t just pretty good. At times it was just shy of perfect, whether I was ice skating at Kutcher’s or running around Rye Beach with my grandparents. Yes my childhood was complicated. I’m guessing yours was too, but it was a blue-band life there for a while and some very special people were alive.
And still those voices are calling from far away.
We would be so tempted to say that these days today pale in comparison no matter when you grew up, that these days are just harder.
We would be tempted to say that it was better then because we live today amid rampant ignorance and intolerance and division, that our world is a hard place to be part of right now, when so many have forgotten the art of dialogue and nuance, let alone the need for compassion and kindness.
But let’s not make the mistake of downplaying the hardship of the generations that preceded us. Our more senior congregants will remind us of how hard life truly was. Let’s not dare minimize the profound struggles endured by many who are with us in our sanctuary right now, our veterans, for instance, or those whose lives were touched by the Holocaust, and the many who just didn’t have access to the medicine or the schooling or the synagogue life we have today.
They would tell us that, no, right now is not the worst time to be alive, even if it is really tough sometimes.
The truth is that we Jews aren’t meant to live in the past. Or, to quote another cult classic, ‘we can’t return; we can only look behind from where we came.’ We’re meant to learn from it and bring it to our present and to the future that our children will build up – yes – ‘with their bare hands,’ but also their moral clarity and commitment to Jewish ideas, their love of Israel and passion for social justice.
Indeed tomorrow morning’s Torah portion of Netzavim has us looking out, not backward, out toward a new beginning in our Promised Land, the decrees of Pharaoh squarely behind us, ready to bring our shared story forward with conviction and pride. Our Israelite ancestors, so prone to looking back, will at last march forward, step by step, their feet strong because of how much they’ve endured, their eyes clear because of all they’ve seen.
In our liturgy we sing ‘zeh ha’yom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismicha bo. This is the day God made, let us rejoice and celebrate it.’
It’s words like these that beg us to be in the moment. Yes, we can have a healthy and full appreciation for our awesome and miraculous past, and more than that, we must.
But let’s also try this year to live in the beauty and complexity and scariness, the wonder of now, because if it’s all yesterdays, how can there be a today, let alone a tomorrow.
Let’s try to be in the moment. For our own sake and the sake of our kids. Let’s be present, precisely because this deep-end present that we are living in right now desperately needs every one of us to be here, swimming with all our might.
It’s a New Jersey icon, Bon Jovi, who reminds us: ‘It’s my life and it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever.’
It is your life. And it is now or never. Amen and Good Yontif.