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Looking Back, Looking Ahead


Rabbi Berel Wein

We currently find ourselves at the beginning of the month of January, which is the first month of the secular year. January derives its name from the pagan god Janus, who was given two faces, one looking in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. It became the symbol of the past and the future, the old year and the new one, of looking back and looking ahead at the same time. This symbolism was adopted by some of the emperors of Europe – notably, the Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Romamovs of the Russian Empire among others. They employed two headed eagles facing in in opposite directions to indicate their seemingly great past and hopefully their even greater future. In fact one could say that all of human life is based on this trait of looking back and looking ahead at one and the same time. The problem always arises as to the emphasis given to looking back or to looking ahead. Without being able to look back individuals and nations are handicapped by the lack of experience and background as how to deal with current events. However, without looking ahead one becomes a captive of the past and runs the great danger of being completely irrelevant to the actual world as it is currently constituted and always changing. This problem of a proper balance between the past and the future is especially acute in current Jewish society – especially in the growing and strengthening section of Jewish society dedicated to observance of Torah commandments and values. Much of this world lives almost solely in the past while another substantial section of our Jewish society looks only to the future and has little knowledge or concern for our past.

One of the many adverse effects of the Holocaust in the Orthodox Jewish world has been the construction of an Eastern European past that is based on romantic fantasy and invention. And it is to this imagined and unrealistic past that the current problems and issues of our society are compared to and measured. Therefore, it is of little wonder that a great deal of dysfunction, disharmony and radically opposing views and contentious personalities dominate the scene. Those that worry about the future, whether it be the future of individuals, families or the Jewish people as a whole and the Jewish state, are oftentimes accused of lacking faith. Since the future is inscrutable, we need not deal with it. God will somehow help us then as He has in the past. Therefore we immerse ourselves in the past, and unfortunately in a past that never was. This type of mindset affects all of our educational systems. It creates unreasonable demands upon children and students and imposes an education meant for the elite and the exceptional on the masses. It imagines that somehow everyone in Europe before the war that destroyed Jewish life there attended yeshiva, studied Talmud and was meticulously observant of all of the minutiae of Jewish law. In making the exceptional the norm, which it never was in the past, many problems that now exist in our current society are not only not solved but in fact are exacerbated. Being fixated on the past, especially on an imaginary past, carries with it dangers.

In a fit of rabbinic exegesis, I would suggest the following. We have just completed reading the book of Bereshith in our Shabbat morning services. At the conclusion of this holy book, our father Jacob blesses his two grandchildren, the sons of Joseph, Menashe and Efrayim. He places his right hand on the head of Efrayim and in his blessing he mentions Efrayim first before Menashe. By the very nature of the linguistic derivatives of their names, Efrayim represents the future growth of the Jewish people in Egypt and thereafter. Menashe represents the past with all of the problems, disappointments and afflictions that the house of Jacob suffered in the land of Canaan. Apparently Jacob wishes us to emphasize the future while at the same time not allowing us to forget the real past that we have experienced and overcome. The Jewish people are big on memorials. We never let go of our past and in fact are constantly reinventing it to fit current political and religious correctness. That is not always a negative thing. But our main emphasis should be on constructing our future. We should be imagining what the Jewish world and the State of Israel will look like a century after us and spend less time on reconstructing what we think the Jewish world looked like a century before us. Knowing our history is essential for vital Jewish life to continue. Nevertheless falling into the trap of being academics of the past and thus disregarding the construction of our future is in my opinion futile and dangerous. The trick is to look forwards and backwards – especially forwards - at the same time without injuring our necks and vision.
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