Thinking About the Good Old Days

There’s a significant phrase in Jewish liturgy. We hear it most commonly at the end of the Torah service.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, hadesh yameinu k’kedem.

This line comes from the book of Lamentations, chapter 5, verse 21. Lamentations was written after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire conquered Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and then destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE. It was a horrible and traumatic time for the Jewish people.

In its original setting, this text is the next to last verse in the entire book. It is a desperate cry. The author begs God to let us back into the divine presence. After the destruction of the Temple, he feels cast out. After so much pain and loss, he despairs of anything good ever happening again.

It’s a complicated sentence to translate because these 6 words imply so much. My interpretation would be, “[Forgive us; open your heart to us]. Let us come back to you, and we will come back; make it like it used to be.”

This dream of restoration, that the good old days are possible to reclaim, is an ancient and abiding hope. But the good old days is a mythic construct. It’s gazing into a rearview mirror vainly hoping we’re looking forward. Nostalgia can be so sweet and intoxicating. If we could just go back to the way things were, we could fix everything and make it all better.

I’m in that new club of older adults who say things like, “I used to be able to walk so much faster.” Or, “I used to stay up until 1am reading and working – what happened?”

Here’s what happened; life happened. It’s not mysterious, and it shouldn’t be surprising. Yet it is both mysterious and shocking.

As we greet people to have a sweet new year, I consciously do not say anything about having a year of peace. Because I don’t think it’s appropriate to wanly wish for something that cannot happen. At least, not right now. I do remember a time in the Sixties when it felt like we could do anything. It was a time that felt ripe with new possibilities. We truly believed that we could end the war in Vietnam; we would give peace a chance.

It’s chilly out there these days, in temperature and temperament. There’s no going back. It’s all about moving forward with resiliency. The myth of the good old days is so comforting, but not instructive. It’s not real. The notion that one day, peace will come, as if it’s a long lost zeppelin, coming in for a landing, at last, is crazy.

It has to be about the will of the people of the planet to decide on just how ludicrous it is to posit that some people deserve more than others based on their race or religion. Peace will only come when we’re all willing to work for it by rowing in the same direction.

And that’s why the hope for peace is a Messianic ideal. Because, quite frankly, the whole world already knows the harsh reality of climate change. We are all under its thumb, yet we still refuse to act in concert as a human race. Which is why I can’t say we pray for peace in the new year.

Here’s what I can feel comfortable saying on the cusp of the new year. Dear God, give us the strength to live through each day with dignity. Give us the courage to stand by the ideals of justice and mercy. Give us the selflessness to extend ourselves to others as we take care of ourselves.

The wishlist is staggering. But wishing and praying are a good foundation for action. As we enter a new year in a little more than a week, I pray that we can find the courage to hope and the strength to do what must be done.
There’s no good old days, just the days to come. They’re empty pages; what a sweet new year it would be if we were to fill those pages with abiding love and holy intentions.

Shabbat Shalom

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