One of my favorite stories from the Talmud (Makkot 24b) takes us back to a time after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by Rome. Rabbi Akiva and some colleagues were strolling past the ruined site of the Temple when suddenly, they watched a fox run out from the exact spot where the Holy of Holies had been situated.
To refresh your memory, the Holy of Holies was the innermost sanctum of the Temple, where the ark of the covenant was kept – a place so “awesome and full of dread” that only the High Priest himself was allowed to enter, and even he could only go in once a year, on Yom Kippur.
Upon witnessing this fox, the colleagues began to cry … while Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” And he questioned back, “Why are you crying?” They explained that no one was ever allowed to walk in the Holy of Holies and now even animals tread there.
Imagine the shock of a loss like that, the subtle insult of a feral animal sullying our most sacred institutions. If you’ve ever known someone who lost a house to fire or natural disaster – much less the House of all Houses – sometimes all we have is tears. But when Akiva’s friends pressed him about his unexpected reaction, he replied: Likach ani tzochek – “because of this I am laughing.” And then went on to explain that as an earlier prophecy foretelling the destruction has come to fruition, he is now assured that the later prophecy about our salvation and successful rebuilding of the Temple will also be fulfilled.
In that moment, any residual fear or anger or sadness evaporated, leaving an exuberant sense that this suffering would eventually be replaced once again with goodness and harmony. And that realization filled him with a surge of almost triumphant energy that could only burst forth as laughter.
Why have Jews told this story for so long? It doesn’t describe a vital moment we’re supposed to remember, like the Exodus story at Passover, and it doesn’t encourage us to act a certain way, like the Binding of Isaac that we read from the Torah this morning. It is much more subtle. Remember, the fundamental experience of Jews for nearly 2,000 years was one of wandering and oppression, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Scenes of desolation, like Akiva’s Temple, were very real in our ancestors’ lives – in a way that, thankfully, they are not for most of us.
So how does a person – or a community – not become despondent or discouraged in the face of anguish? How are we supposed to preserve our optimism, our joy, our drive? Akiva offers us a blueprint: he doesn’t give up or lose hope – his stance in the face of hardship is both optimistic and defiant. Faced with the same reality that made his associates weep, Akiva chose not to dwell in that particular instant, but to embody the very different reality of a better time. It wasn’t nervous laughter or mockery, but represented the joy he felt by realizing that what he saw in front of him was not an eternal truth, as much as a fleeting vision.
But the vital subtext in Akiva’s story is less apparent. The Temple is a powerful symbol in Jewish tradition. And even though he cites this future prophesy when everything is going to be okay … the truth is, Akiva was yearning for the past. Salvation meant restoration of the Temple, bringing back what we had lost from an idealized past. Akiva’s ability to see beyond the destruction derived from his memories about the way things used to be, and his deep-seated desire to go back there.
That specific aspiration may be unique to our Jewish narrative, but the concept is very human. Human nature evolved, in part, as a reaction to life that was famously described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.” A little dramatic, perhaps, but we have developed coping mechanisms in order to maintain our ability to function in a sometimes-unforgiving world.
Who hasn’t wished for the good old days, or even a remembered Golden Age? It’s common enough that there is a word for it … Nostalgia.
Nostalgia is the longing for a previous/better time borne out of a present experience that is somehow less than ideal. But nostalgia isn’t about judging different events in our lives or in history … it is a moment of wistfulness when we, perhaps subconsciously, feel the need to escape the moment we are currently trapped in. We all know the feeling of closing our eyes and imagining that perfect family vacation or successful venture, perhaps that one place where we feel completely at peace. It feels good.
So it was surprising for me to learn that nostalgia was once considered a dreaded neurological disease, even associated with demons! The concept goes back to a 17th-century Swiss doctor who believed that the physical and mental illnesses that soldiers experienced were caused by their longing to return home. The term “nostalgia” derives from ‘nostos’ – returning home, and ‘algos’ – pain.
I have never personally experienced battle, but I can imagine that a soldier – for all their strength and valor – is in one of the most precarious of all human conditions … wanting desperately to be anywhere but that battlefield. And so the human mind conjures a time or a place of comfort, of memory, of ease. Nostalgia helps us escape to that place where things felt right and good. Whether things were really better or not doesn’t matter – when we are needing relief, our mind helps us get there.
But nostalgia isn’t only connected to life-altering events. It also serves a more foundational role in our daily lives. Anthony Burrow, Professor of Psychology at Cornell, recently described a very simple experiment where people reported in the morning how purposeful they felt their day was going to be. And then reported again in the evening about how purposeful the day had been.
Turns out that people tend to overestimate how purposeful their day is going to be … but afterwards, they don’t think it was as purposeful as they expected. Why would that be?
One strong possibility is that we very naturally overestimate how well we did in the past. We idealize previous events and elevate the recall of our successes, triumphs, and joys. Nostalgia fills us with confidence so that when we look ahead to plan our day, or envision how our next endeavor will go, we expect it to be just as fun, fulfilling or prosperous as the way we remember those moments from our past. Especially during difficult times, if we woke up each day and recalled how our project failed, our relationship soured or a challenge prevented us from succeeding … where would we find the impetus to try again?
I am not suggesting, of course, that we only recall positive memories – this isn’t a question of what our brains hold onto. Nostalgia is an approach that seems to be hard-wired into us and that helps us overcome the ordeals inherent to our lives.
But the optimism of nostalgia is not enough for us to succeed in life. Professor Burrow suggests that there is a difference between a “life of meaning” versus a “life of purpose.” He says
Meaning is making sense of the world as it happened … whereas purpose may not be so much about comprehending what has happened, as much as it is aspiring to, or attending to, something that is ahead of you.
Akiva represents meaning – he feels good about the prospect of returning to that Temple of old. It provided him with enough satisfaction to brush off his terrible circumstances. But in reading that story, the Jewish mind knows that the Temple was never, in fact, rebuilt.
The rabbis, perhaps inspired by Akiva’s laughter, formed something new, something better, something enduring. They went beyond Akiva since they had a definitive purpose, and thus created a new kind of Temple – to borrow Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magnificent phrase – a "cathedral in time."
And this, of course, is where Rosh Hashanah enters the story.
This Jewish new year serves multiple purposes in our lives. Yes, it is a time to gather as a community and celebrate. Yes, it is an opportunity to mark the passage of time. Yes, it is our annual chance to dive more deeply into ritual and tradition, in ways that we do not do every day. But none of these represents the true potential of this holiday.
This may sound strange, but ask yourself – what sense does it make that today is the New Year? It is the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei … but Tishrei is not the first month of the year.
You heard me correctly – ask any school child in Israel to name the months of the year, in order, and they will say: Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz … eventually we get to Elul and Tishrei. But today is not the 1st day of the 1st month. It is the first day of the 7th month. By the way, if you think I’m trying to pull a fast one on you, all you have to do is open your prayer book. It’s right there on page 23, I read it out loud last night … “In the 7th month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a sacred assembly … proclaimed by the sound of the shofar!” Which, by the way, is a direct quote from the Torah (Leviticus 23:24).
Stick with me here – today represents a new year, but not the start of the first month of the year. The Jewish calendar, which is a brilliant creation in its own, is not-so-subtly telling us that it isn’t nature that will define a new year in our lives … it is us! This day represents a fresh start and a fertile opportunity – but only if we use it that way.
It’s not that our tradition wants us to forget the past or ignore it. To the contrary, we value our history quite highly. But the entire backdrop of this day is shouting to us that the future doesn’t necessarily grow out of the past the past – it isn’t preordained, it isn’t limited, it isn’t just what comes next. The future is in our hands.
The magic of defining your purpose is that it can change. You aren’t simply the person who got through this many years of your life … today, you get to decide what your purpose is going to be for this year. And then on the next Rosh Hashanah, you look back, see what you think … just like in that experiment, were you as purposeful as you expected to be? And then you get to start fresh once again.
Last night, Rabbi Megan Brudney presented us with an astute framework for moving past the most difficult times in our lives, such as this past year. Eventually, if we all do our part, this will be in our rearview mirror. And if nature takes its course, we will eventually look back on even these days nostalgically. When you do, perhaps you will embrace Akiva by finding light in the darkness.
But my deepest prayer is that each of us will do more. It is only when we leave Akiva behind that we can embrace a destiny that is yet unwritten. Which of us will be written in the Book of Life this year? Every one of us. For the book isn’t so simplistically about living or dying … it is about how we choose to live, and how much value we can squeeze out of each day that we are given.
Take some time. No matter how happy or successful or fulfilled you feel … it will be a gift to yourself. In particular, the ten days between now and Yom Kippur. Take a segment of these Days of Awe in order to ask yourself the most difficult of all questions …
Where am I heading? What do I want to accomplish? Who do I want to be?
And then give yourself the Jewish bonus of releasing the nostalgia that makes it feel too comfortable to change. When you do, I can’t wait to hear what you have accomplished, who you have become.
May this be our highest intention, and Ken Y’hi Ratzon – may this be God’s will!