From North Korea to Ancient Rome, in their pantheons and monuments, most nations of the world depict the leader, emperor, or caesar as a visionary man (alas, seldom a woman) with his eyes fiercely set into the future, often with a pointed finger (or better yet a sword) leading the way forth. This artistic motif betrays an assumption that permeates these cultures: human beings are in control of their destiny and it is through the inspired leadership of the enlightened few that we can steer the ship of history to the destination of our choosing; a place that is always better, different, and, thus, justifies our turning our backs to what was before to embrace this brave new world. Often this also means becoming oblivious to the mistakes and the crimes that propelled these nations to this elusive future to which they are so fiercely pushing forward.
Traditionally, the Jewish understanding of history has followed a disimilar path. In one of the most fascinating stories in the Talmud (Menachot 29b), God transports Moses to the House of Study of Rabbi Akiva more than a thousand years in the future. To catch a glimpse of what is to come, God asks Moses to “look behind him”. Thus, the natural Jewish understanding of the natural historical stance is that we are facing the past and our backs are turned to the future. We are moonwalking away from the past that we know and blundering blindly into the unknown that is to come. In a pessimistic take on this metaphor, the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin described history as an angel whose spread wings have been caught up in the mighty wind of progress, propelling him eternally backwards. The angel´s gaze is fixed on the past which is a growing pile of debris which the angel would like to stay and help heal, but he is unable: the wind is too strong.
The advantages of such a historical consciousness for the Jewish people are evident. A nation whose eyes are fixed on its past (especially in such a long and rich past) will always know where it is coming from. It will have at its disposition all the tools (religious, ethnic, social) that it has gathered in its journey and its interactions with other nations, which in the Jewish case almost encompasses a full catalogue of humanity and most of the globe. Morally, this nation will have to live and deal with the consequences of its mistakes and shortcomings, hopefully learning from them instead of chucking them into the discarded pile of what is past. Every year, around our seder, every Jewish child knows where she had been, who she was, and, therefore, is given a precious hint of who she is. Almost every Jewish practice involves an aspect of memory, seeking to relive, reconnect and bind us with our past.
However, such a consciousness might also fall prey to the helplessness described by Benjamin. If our eyes are fixed in the past, especially with a bloody a past as ours, we also risk becoming paralyzed by it. If our past not only shapes us and forms us but determines us, we might be as oblivious to our future as some of these heroic nations are towards their past. And this would be a betrayal of that other great historical idea of the Jewish people: the idea of redemption. The proposition that though we may crash clumsily into the ever changing and surprising future, we have been promised that history leads, tortuously but inexorably, to the Messianic age.
The modern age has seen its share of ideas of how to solve the paradox of being responsible both for our future and our past. Some groups have leaned forward and squinted forcefully into the past, trying to hold on to what is solid, while everything else melts into air. Others have declared Jewish past a burden, a nightmare to be forgotten, advocating for Jews to “become like other nations” and start facing forward into their future (often falling into the same heroic shortcomings of the well meaning forward facing nations of the world). Is it possible, however, to continue to moonwalk, but, following the example of Moses our Master, taking peeks over our shoulder not only to save ourselves harm and aggravation but also to, however clumsily, keep plotting our course to the (we are told) inevitable but elusive harbor of redemption. In other words, can we honor our destiny, while assuming responsibility for our destination?email print