Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead (Portion Re'eh)

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
            -Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh

“The past is a source of knowledge and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”
            -Stephen Ambrose

The entire book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for the past four decades.  Now 120 years old, he will soon die, and Joshua will lead a new generation of Israelites, born into freedom in the wilderness, into the Promised Land.  As he speaks, Moses recalls the past, again and again, as a source of guidance for the future.  He is afraid that as they establish themselves in Canaan, the people will forget from whence they came and grow ungrateful, taking their manifold blessings for granted.  And so he urges them to remember their history and learn from it.   He teaches us that by reflecting on the choices that we have made—for both good and bad, blessing and curse—we can learn and grow and choose more wisely on the road ahead.

This is critical for us, both collectively and as individuals.  Looking at current events, I often see signs of a deeply disturbing national forgetfulness.  Just consider some of the vituperative rhetoric (and policy) on the subject of immigration.  How have we so quickly forgotten that all of our forebears, save for those of the Native American population among us, came to these shores as immigrants?  When we remember our own history, we should realize how callous it is to deny others the same opportunities that have proven so advantageous for us.

And as individuals, we Jews have a special obligation to reflect on the past in this sacred season.  The Hebrew month of Elul begins in just a little over a week, on August 26.  That marks the commencement of our traditional period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Days of Awe.  Our tradition urges us to use this time for a spiritual accounting (cheshbon nefesh) of our actions of the past year.  We consider our choices, our blessings and curses, and use our insights to help us improve our deeds in the year to come.

Financial advisors always caution: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.”  To which, in the spiritual realm, I’d say: “Thank God.”  Knowing the past, we can change the future.  Now that’s a miracle for which I’m very grateful, indeed.

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