Don’t Get Trapped in the Past: The Best of Times is Now
God bless Barack Obama! He always makes my juices flow! He did it once again last week in an interview he had with Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic Magazine, when he made the simple, seemingly innocent statement: “I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of you know … kibbutzim and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland but also we are remaking the world.”
What President Obama was saying was basically a repeat of what he has said before. He does not like the more hawkish, Likud approach that has won the majority of Israeli support in recent years. The Israel he loves, the Israel he misses, the Israel he yearns for, is the more dovish Israel “of the kibbutzim, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir” … the Israel of days gone by.
Mr. Obama’s mistake is that those days were not as good as he remembers them. Israelis chose to move on from them and they are all the better for it! Moshe Dayan? He was dumped as Defense Minister because of the mistaken decisions he made that led to the Yom Kippur War. Golda Meir? Mr. Obama, you think you have trouble getting Bibi Netanyahu to agree to a two-state solution with the Palestinians? Golda Meir is remembered for having said: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people … it’s not as if we came and threw them out. They didn’t exist!”
The kibbutzim? Israelis chose to run from them! Yes, it was a beautiful dream but the reality was not so beautiful! More and more kibbutzim went bankrupt. The socialist dream didn’t work, not anywhere and not in Israel. Free enterprise is now even the norm in China. The idea of having someone tell you what to think, what to study, what work to do … did not bring out the best in people. Kibbutzim learned what the greater civilized world has learned: that an individual works harder for his own family than for other people’s families, and that there is a better rate of return in exporting microchips than in exporting oranges. And besides, when a child wakes up crying in the middle of the night there is a strong case to be made that the child is better off being comforted by his or her mother than by a volunteer from the kibbutz.
This is the Israel that President Obama remembers and wants to return to. There is a word for this. It’s called “nostalgia,” which is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” You should know that the Swiss doctor who coined that word – nostalgia – in 1688 described nostalgia as being a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”
We have come to understand that this is not so. Nostalgia is a very human condition and it goes back all the way to last week’s Torah portion where we find the Jews doing something very Jewish: complaining about the food when they cried out: “Zacharanu et ha-dagah – we remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt” – now we have nothing but this manna to look to. Do you really think the Egyptians served the Jewish people fish during our 210 years of slavery? Is that how you picture the Egyptians treating our ancestors – by serving them spicy salmon roll, or yellow tail or tuna with scallion? The description that we have of what the Jews ate in Egypt was matzoh, the lechem oni – the poor people’s bread. What fish?
It seems that our ancestors in those days fell victim to a syndrome that many of us have to this very day. It’s called the syndrome of “the good old days.” There seems to be a tendency amongst many people to always picture the past as having been much better than it really was. Whatever is wrong today, they think in their minds, was much better in “the good old days,” somehow blurring out the fact that the “good old days” weren’t really that good. It is this syndrome that perhaps gave rise to one of the most popular and most dangerous songs that we all know: “Those were the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end.” It’s a great song . . . but it’s dangerous! It leads us to the misconception that now we’ve got problems, but back then? “Those were the days, my friends.”
The truth is nobody knows what the future may bring. We do know the past … or we think we do! But we don’t do them or ourselves justice when we glorify them and idealize them in a way that they never could live up to. We frequently hear the phrase, “Gimme that old time religion …” and that makes it seem as if religion was so engaging, and people were so pious in the “good old days.” How often we wax poetic about the Yiddishkeit that imbued the homes and families living in the East European shtetls of old! What people tend to forget is that frequently that religion was confined to the ghetto. In the big cities of Berlin and Warsaw and Budapest, countless Jews had turned their back on their religious heritage. Many converted or just assimilated into the general society.
And today? I’m not going to tell you that everything religiously is wonderful these days for us as Jews, but let me tell you what one Jewish family is doing in our day. Last weekend the horse American Pharaoh ran in the Belmont Stakes and won the Triple Crown. What many people don’t know is that the horse’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, his wife, and four children are all Orthodox Jews – observant, Orthodox Jews!
So, how were they going to get to Belmont Park? That was also a question they confronted three weeks ago at the time of the running of the Preakness. As you are all aware, there are no hotels near Pimlico Race Course. Do you know what the Zayats did then, and did at the Belmont? They rented a trailer to stay in. Don’t get me wrong, they are not suffering, as his wife described it, “It’s not just the regular old RV; it is 45 feet long, has two bathrooms, a full kitchen and dining area and sleeps 6-8 people.” Shabbos is still Shabbos. You are still getting gefilte fish for dinner. In the “good old days” they said that America was the treife medinah. Nostalgia has a way of doing that.
“Those were the days, my friends?” No, I think a much more appropriate song to reflect our belief is the one from the Broadway show “La Cage” – “The best of times are now.” These are the best of times – yesterday’s gone and tomorrow may never be. All we have is today, now. So let us enjoy and cherish our gefilte fish and our sushi, the old and the new. Let us be grateful for all the good that we have in our lives.