Driving on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the other day, I was overcome by one of those moments that we all relish and spend a fair chunk of our lives trying to recreate. The sun was setting, spreading a reddish-brown net over the road, fields and trees. Blue Rodeo’s Lost Together, a song from my teenage years, played on the car stereo.
The “moment” occurred just as I passed the outer edge of a large field, where the grass merged with the first layer of the upcoming forest. I was transported back to any of the multiple times in my youth when I stepped entered the brush in the idyllic Laurentian mountain region north of Montreal where I spent my summers, the web of watchful branches suddenly above my head protecting me, the sturdy trunks blocking off the outside world.
It was not any one specific memory that overwhelmed me. It was rather an indescribable sensation of fervor and expectation, the subtle inspiration that is wasted on the young, who don’t have the experience or wisdom to fully appreciate what is bestowed upon them.
I have always thought that the past, like the future, is a dangerous creature, because anything other than the present moment ultimately exists only in our heads. We tend to piece together facts and details of past and future however we like, in many respects converting them into an escape, an excuse not to do the most difficult and rewarding thing any of us will ever do — to live fully in the moment, to experience things as they are.
Yet, on this recent summer evening, I was inspired enough by the past to question my mistrust of memory. My sense of nostalgia seemed to have a rightful place in my heart and in my world. Was it better to cast it off like a jellyfish clinging to my arm as I came up from the surf or hold on to it for as long as possible (which is what I did)?
The concept of nostalgia appears in the Bible in different contexts. We find it infiltrate the mindset of the children of Israel shortly after God took them out of Egypt, when the “rabble”, filled with lust, recalled better times (Numbers 11:5): “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” This complaint unmasks the danger of nostalgia, where one piece of a picture is plucked out and set on a pedestal, skewing the past to the point of absurdity: While it may be true that the children of Israel received free cucumbers in Egypt, they, at the same time, provided the Egyptians with free hard labor.
However, another verse relates to nostalgia differently. In one of the sole islands of optimism in the opening chapters of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, proclaims to the people of Israel (Jeremiah 2:2): “I remember the affection of your youth, your love as a bride; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.” This nostalgic declaration of God is a beloved Biblical verse that features prominently in Jewish liturgy. Yet, at first glance, this verse, which refers to the relationship between God and the children of Israel as they wandered out of Egypt into the desert, appears to be problematic: Has God forgotten the squabbles which epitomized Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the bickering and the hesitance, the rebellions and defiance? Can this really be an accurate picture of what transpired?
The answer to this question is that Jeremiah is not attempting to describe reality. Rather, the verse represents the unearthing of a profound sentiment that is rooted in past events, something that can always be real if brought back up into the light. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the initial bond that the children of Israel formed with God by way of their affection, love and trust serves as a saving grace when God contemplates their destruction. This is not an attempt to resuscitate the past, which is impossible, but a way of reliving a kernel of that past in the form of deep-seated emotion.
Such a spell of nostalgia, which more often than not graces the present moment with warmth and joy, is one that I will always crave and welcome.