Tag Archives: Jewish thought

Nostalgia: Friend or Foe?

footsteps in sand

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.

Was it Satan or a Hasid who got a hold of Led Zeppelin?

courtesy of dunechaser (flikr.com)

Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, may be one of the greatest rock n’ roll songs ever written. VH1 seemed to think so, ranking it as the third Greatest Rock Song ever (and they’re not alone).

What was the group’s inspiration for the song? Did it come from none other than Satan, as is claimed by the aficionados who have played the song backwards and swear to have picked up on Satanic references? Or does the song hail rather from the forces of good?

Lyrically, at least (when played forward), Stairway to Heaven has always been a spiritual song in my mind. It speaks of the hope of those who have strayed, of those who are lost:

Here are the lyrics:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder, ooh, it makes me wonder.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder, ooh, it really makes me wonder.
And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter. 
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadow’s taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When we all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
Writers: James Patrick, Robert Plant, Copyright: Flames Of Albion Music Inc.

In the story told in the song, a confident lady believes that she can ‘buy’ divine favor (a stairway to heaven), if only because she has the ‘cash’ to do it.

We regular folk, on the other hand, do not share her conviction. Our ‘heads [are] humming and it won’t go [away]’. We don’t know what we’re doing orwhere we stand. Still, our situation isn’t hopeless: At this very moment, there’s ‘a songbird singing in the tree by the brook’ and the piper can ‘lead us to reason’ if we would only ‘call the tune’.

What makes Stairway to Heaven‘s songbird and piper special is that they’re privy to the chords of the universal song, to the ‘tune’ emitted by the guitar strings of creation. This music has the power to elevate our souls: ‘There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.’ And if we get there, if we’re able to pay attention to the tune, no matter what we have done or where we find ourselves, ‘in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.’ 

The one who’s lost is ultimately the ‘rich’ lady; she’s the one who fails to acknowledge that her ‘stairway relies on the whispering wind’, on the universal tune. As we all ‘wind down the road’, this infamous lady continues to wear her blinders, still believing that her ‘white light’ will turn everything to gold. Why is it that this ‘dear lady’ can’t ‘hear the wind blow’?

As the song hits a crescendo (this is the point where Jimmy Page emerges from his guitar solo), it is explained that if we ‘listen very hard, the tune will come to [us] at last, when all are one and one is all’. It is only then that we will stop rolling down the mountain without a course.

Music is one of the few things in this world which can take hold of me and change my mood within seconds. It can raise my spirits even during those periods where I didn’t think it possible. I believe that music has this awesome power because the harmony that can be found in it is one of few phenomena which can give a person a glimpse into the harmony underlying the universe.

There is a wonderful Hasidic parable that is said in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut:

A group of traveling musicians were once performing in a town square. Their sound was unlike any the townspeople had ever heard before, the majestic harmony, the beat of the drum perfectly in sync with the rhythm of each person’s soul. Pedestrians were unable to simply pass them by. One by one, the people stopped to enjoy the music. And the experience was so profound that they couldn’t merely stand by and listen. They began to move their bodies to the rhythm of the music. At first, a small group of friends began to dance together, but everyone soon joined in, dancing in circles, in lines, in chaotic patterns. Eventually, the entire town was dancing wildly, uninhibitedly.

At this point, when the town square was in a frenzy, a deaf man walks by. He sees the dancers, the contortions on their faces, the flailing limbs and yells out: “Stop this! Has everyone gone mad? What are you all doing?”

A red-faced man, who had never enjoyed himself so much in all his life, stopped dancing in pity for this passerby. The sweat was dripping down his sideburns, a boyish smile fixed on his face. He looked deep into the deaf man’s eyes, struggling to comprehend the question, and finally asked him, “Can you not hear the music?”

Maimonides writes in his Laws of Repentance that everyone is capable of being righteous: “Permission is granted to every man. If he wills to walk on the good path and become righteous, he is able to. If he wills to walk on the evil path and become evil, he is able to.” (Laws of Repentance, 5:1)

But what will it take to get ourselves on the good path? According to Stairway to Heaven, it would seem that we must connect to the tune that drives the world. Anyone who’s following a tried and true recipe will probably not get there, no matter how much ‘cash’ he or she has stored up. Such a person would be likened to the lady buying her stairway or the deaf man in the Hasidic tale.

This may be what Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the last century, had in mind when he described the highest level of repentance, what he termed ‘repentance of understanding’. According to him, the ultimate goal of repentance is to attain “a clear perception that comes from an understanding of the whole world and all of life… It is towards this awareness which all eyes yearn, and it which will come in the future for those who search for it.” (Lights of Repentance, Chapter 1)

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

There is always hope, but only if we will listen very hard.

Can we Agree to Agree? – The Truth that Lies Beneath

Hillel

Many of us are familiar with the striking answer given by the great Jewish sage, Hillel the Elder, to the presumptuous and shockingly impatient proselyte who agreed to convert to Judaism only on condition that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one leg (Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” responded Hillel. “That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

This is certainly a nice idea, but after giving it a moments’ thought, we are left to wonder: How can Hillel’s reply encapsulate the Torah as we know it? What about kashrut? What about Shabbat? What about the minute detail of the Temple sacrifices listed in the book of Vayikra? How exactly has Hillel summarized the whole Torah?

Confucius

In the Analects, the seminal collection of the sayings of Confucius, the venerable Chinese philosopher (who died in 491 BCE, well before the time of Hillel, who lived circa 100 BCE) included the following in his definition of virtue (Book 12, Chapter 2):

“Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.”

Confucius’s lesson is nearly identical to the statement of Hillel, even to the extent that both sages carefully chose to phrase this moral imperative in the negative (rather than the positive: ‘Do to others as you would wish done to yourself’).

Kant

This principle mentioned by Hillel and in the Analects would also come to form a central axiom in the thought of Immanuel Kant, one of history’s foremost philosophers:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it [the maxim] should become a universal law.”  (the ‘categorical imperative’)

Is the above demonstrated overlap a coincidence? Or, on the other hand, did Hillel the Elder recycle an old Confucian maxim, only to have his conversation with the proselyte further recycled by none other than Immanuel Kant?

An Underlying Truth

In my opinion, Confucius, Kant and Hillel were certainly each subjected to entirely different sources of knowledge. Still, the overlap in their thought is easily explained.

In fact, overlaps between unconnected thinkers and systems of thought are quite common, the reason being, that there really aren’t more than a handful of fundamental truths that underlie the world as we know it. I would even go so far as to say that these few fundamental truths ultimately merge into one monolithic truth. Therefore, each system of thought, whether religious or secular, is simply an attempt to materialize this truth into words and principles; they can be seen as a finger of sorts pointing us in the way of this truth.

Let me explain this idea further:

I am an Orthodox Jew. The way I understand the details and traditions of my religion, and of the universe as a whole, is a direct result of my own independent study of books and other materials at my disposal, of the instruction I have received from those whom I cared to learn from, from my exposure to the wisdom of Western institutions and culture and through good old-fashioned osmosis.

I am sure that all of you have your own multifaceted sources of information and learning as well.

What I am proposing is that there is a truth that lurks behind everything that we are exposed to. We wake up in the morning and we feel it in our gut and each of us wants to get to it, to hold it in our hand, even though we may not know how to put “it” into words.

The Truth as Understood by Hillel, Confucius and Kant

What sets gifted, inspired personalities such as Confucius, Hillel and Kant apart from others is that they were able to wade into its depths of all they were exposed to and emerge to tell the world: “This is the heart of things. This is the truth embedded at the core of all I have learned.” In the case that I have described above, the way these three individuals understood the truth underlying the world was similar in a significant way.

This is the lesson that Hillel imparted to the proselyte. He was not implying that the contents of the Torah could be summarized by one principle. He was saying as follows:

“I agree with you that: While our Torah is made up of endless details and traditions that set it apart from other systems of thought, at its heart it contains a fundamental truth. I can best explain this truth to you as: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor’. This is the underlying truth that the Torah is pointing to, in my opinion. The rest is commentary. Get to it.”