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Nostalgia's longing & hope's promise

I am a summer person, and this feels like the first real, official Shabbat of summertime. There’s just something about summertime that really tugs at all of my heartstrings;  every year, after that first really warm day, the nostalgia always kicks in for me. The smell of the boxwood hedges in my backyard remind me of the boxwoods at my grandparents’ house on Atkinson Road. As I drive back and forth, up and down Route 7 on a warm summer day, I remember the way the Berkshires smelled when we would finally turn left off School House Rd. in Sheffield, heading to camp for another summer on that magical hill. My nostalgia always comes with a soundtrack, and the soundtrack of my childhood was Paul Simon’s Graceland, the Traveling Wilburys, Dire Straits, and of course, Billy Joel- all in the backseat of the station wagon, loaded down with duffel bags and pillows as we made our way to camp, or to my grandparents’ summer rental at Oak n Spruce. 

When you’re a summer person, the nostalgia is warm and honeyed— blanketing your memories of the past with a glow that makes it all seem so easy and perfect. It's a yearning for a simpler time, a time when the world seemed less complicated, less fraught with worry.

Nostalgia, as we know, can be a mixed blessing, working like a file to sand off the rough edges of our memories, leaving them much smoother than they might have actually been. On the one hand, nostalgia offers us comfort; reminding us of what it felt like to belong and offering us a connection to our past. But on the other hand, nostalgia can be a bit dangerous— blinding us to past injustices, rendering us unable to progress. I am reminded of the Billy Joel lyric I’ve sung out loud more times than I can remember: "The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.”

So, what about today? 

This week, as we read Parashat Korach,  I am reminded of the darker side of nostalgia, as we encounter the Israelites, still in the wilderness. 

The story of deep political divisions and a mistrust of leadership that characterize this week’s Torah portion are as relevant today as they were in the biblical context. Korach, one of the Levites, steps forward to call Moses and Aaron out. He bands together with 250 of his fellow Israelites and they come up against Moses and Aaron saying: “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you raise yourselves above everyone else?” It’s a powerful and emotional accusation. 

The accusation comes with a backstory though— a narrative that Korach and his followers construct that puts a rosier tint on that rearview mirror.

Throughout the story of our people’s Exodus from Egypt and subsequent wandering, we see that whenever there are bumps in the road, the immediate reaction is to express a nostalgia for life back in Egypt that borders on absurdity. 

But now, in the middle of the book of Numbers, B’midbar, “the essence of the kvetching turns the yearning for return into something well beyond a romanticization of the past. The nostalgia crosses into the surreal, the absurd, even the shameful. Egypt is remembered for its good food, ". . . the fish . . . the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" (Numbers 11:5).  And perhaps even worse, as Dathan and Abiram, two of the seditious members of the tribe of Reuben,  sneeringly ask: "Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey . . . ?" (Numbers 16:13).

When you’re stuck in the middle— lost in the desert, frustrated, scared, and fired up— apparently even slavery Egypt can look like the good old days. 

What is it about the human condition that allows nostalgia to eclipse reason? 

Did Dathan and Abiram really think that Egypt was a land flowing with milk and honey? In using that language, they appropriate Moses’ own description of the land of Canaan— perhaps a word choice meant to really twist the knife. Here they are: voicing their complaints and lodging their charges against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership— and their primary point of comparison for those good old days is to imagine that the land of milk and honey exists in the rearview mirror; that Egypt was that good land, and now, Moses and Aaron are leading them into an abyss. 

While so often this weeks’ Torah portion is characterized as a story about rebellion and punishment (Korach and his band of merry men are summarily swallowed up whole by the earth, as punishment for their hubris), in this moment in the world, I see a story about yearning. Yearning for something better: for a more settled life; for abundance and goodness. While Korach’s rebellion and Dothan and Abiram’s words are leveraged against Moses’ leadership, what I hear is a yearning for the nourishment and sweetness that milk and honey symbolize. 

As Jews and as Americans, we are no strangers to yearning. We yearn for peace in a time of war, for justice in a time of injustice, for unity in a time of division.We yearn for an ideal of Israel that is peaceful and redemptive; a land flowing with community and justice and love.  We yearn for a return to the ideals of our founding fathers, to a time when democracy seemed unassailable and our rights absolute. 

And here we find ourselves, not unlike the Israelites, very much stuck in the wilderness. The war in Gaza drags on and we count 272 days that the hostages have been captive in a hell that we can’t even imagine. Anti Semitism around the world is the backdrop to the antisemitism in our own backyard. In this election year, we have watched in horror as the Supreme Court handed down decisions that dismantle our democracy.  It’s hard to tell which way is Egypt, and which way is the promised land. It’s easy to feel directionless. 

As readers of the biblical text, we look at Dothan and Abiram’s claim that really it was Egypt that was the land of milk and honey, and we easily call it out as fake news: Egypt was the land of slavery and hardship. Clearly they are wrong; using their words with sarcasm, intending to make their point. We can see easily and clearly that this is not a productive kind of nostalgia, but a false one. 

It is fitting to see the confluence of parashat Korach this week with yesterdays’ observance of Independence Day here in America. July 4th stands on our calendar as a ritual reminder of what this country is intended to stand for— of the tenets of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. 

My experience of July 4th was not dissimilar to my experience of Yom HaAtzmaut this year: a day designated not only to celebrate, but rededicate ourselves to the ideals of this nation that we call home. Much like the muted, bittersweet ways that Israeli’s marked Israeli Independence Day this past year, my sense is that for many of us, it is hard to square the idea of a boisterous celebration of our own countries’ founding, with the current moment: from the judicial attacks on reproductive rights, to the ruling in Oregon essentially making homelessness illegal, to granting former presidents immunity- like  Justice Sandra Sotomayor, I have great fear for our democracy. 

We need a new direction forward, and as the movements for equality over the last one hundred years have reminded us: the good old days weren’t always good. 

So, if not nostalgia— what do we need at this moment? What will bring us closer to that land of milk and honey? 

In a comment on this week’s Torah portion,  Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (Germany, 1843-1921) describes the idea of “the land of milk and honey” as an accepted expression to designate a good land where there is found everything in great abundance.  But it is the next piece of his commentary that I believe offers us a companion to nostalgia: Hoffman teaches “this phrase (i.e. land of milk and honey) is similar to the expression "each person under his own vine and each person under his own fig tree" that symbolizes richness and peace.

In his letter to the Jews of Newport written 234 years ago, George Washington reflected on what it would mean for the Jewish community to be a part of this nation as we moved from “days of difficulty and danger” to “days of uncommon prosperity and security.”His closing paragraph reads: 

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Milk and honey, vines and fig trees— all symbols of nourishment, protection, and above all: sweetness. 

Nostalgia does have a place in our consciousness: reminding us of sweeter times— but, nostalgia alone won’t move us out of the wilderness. 

For that, we’ll need hope. 

We’ll need the promise of safety and shade— of sufficient sweetness, to power us through the days and months ahead. 

Like our desert ancestors before us, we are not helpless, though the road ahead will be difficult. Like the Jews of Newport in 1790, the promise of life, liberty, and future happiness is not guaranteed. 

George Washington knew his bible— his words to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport RI was inspired by the words of the prophet Micah who said: 

וְיָשְׁב֗וּ אִ֣ישׁ תַּ֧חַת גַּפְנ֛וֹ וְתַ֥חַת תְּאֵנָת֖וֹ וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד כִּי־פִ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת דִּבֵּֽר׃

And each person shall sit beneath their own vine, and beneath their own fig tree and none will make them afraid, because the Lord has spoken (Micah 4:4)

What calls out to me in this text is that it is written in the future tense.

In this precarious moment in our world, let this be the vision of hope we cling to: a future tense vision of a world in which each person, created in the image of God, dwells in peace and wholeness underneath their own vine and fig tree, nourished and revived by the sweetness of the land. Through the work of our hands, the words of our mouth, and the meditations of our heart, may each of us do our part to bring us closer to that vision of world defined by justice, peace, and sweetness. 

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