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(Not) Forgetting the Past – Parshas Ki Seitzei

On May 3rd, 2002, the movie, Spider-man was released. Critics and audiences agreed that it was a great film; the first to gross 100 million over a weekend, and at the time, was the most successful film based on a comic book. (Wikipedia) What most audience members did not know, is that one of its most compelling and dramatic scenes were deleted by the producers before it first screened. It’s a scene you could actually still see in previews for the film – the scene has bank robbers making a quick get-away in a helicopter, racing through New York City, only to be caught by a web, spun by Spiderman. The tremendous web Spiderman spins stretches between the north and south Towers of the World Trade Center.

Sam Raimi, the director said, it would be “unfathomable” to leave the scene in and deleted it. In retrospect he called the decision and the controversy around it, “the biggest issue in American etiquette.”

Similarly, the Sopranos deleted the towers from their opening credits. The Simpsons didn’t rerelease a 1997 episode which has a little Homer racing across the World Trade Center plaza. On the other hand, the director of Armageddon consciously chose to not edit out the towers when the movie was released a second time after 9/11.

On the one hand, seeing the towers in films can be jarring at best, and for those who were in one way or another impacted, it can be downright traumatic. On the other hand, leaving the towers in films, pictures, and tv shows, is a tribute to what once was and can provide a sense of healing. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/movies/9-11-twin-towers-tv-movies.html?searchResultPosition=17)

How we treat the past is not limited the silver screen, it’s a philosophical question with great implications. It’s been noted by historians that civilizations see time in very different ways from one another. Generally speaking, the Eastern world sees time as a cycle; it is a world that believes in reincarnation and practices meditation. The Western world on the other hand, sees time in a linear fashion; a beginning and an end, influenced no doubt by the Bible. It’s a world of progress, of trying to change the future.

In the past few decades, there has been a strong influence of Eastern thinking here in America. Things like Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling book, the Power of Now rated by Oprah as the must-read book or meditation, which is no longer reserved for new-agers, but takes place in board rooms, and in medical centers. It’s wonderful! I’ve even started meditating a little, and I love it.

This focus on the present has even made its way into Jewish thought. There’s a Jews song that was popular a few years back with the catchy words, ha’avar ayin, ha’atid adayin, v’hahoveh k’heref ayin. The past is gone, the future has not yet taken place, and the present is gone in the blink of an eye. Da’gah minayin, why worry, the song concludes; if you live in the now there is nothing to fear. (Most likely, this “Jewish” aphorism was taken from Buddha, whose pupil recorded him saying: “What is past is left behind, the future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there.”)

Now who could argue with such a wonderful philosophy? A philosophy that encourages us not to be held back by the past? A philosophy that embraces the present? A philosophy that gives us endless new beginnings?

Peter Beinart, in a thoughtful article in last month’s Atlantic, hints to some negative implications of the power of now. In explaining why Kamala Harris and Corey Booker are doing so poorly in the race for presidential nomination, he points to one fatal issue – presentism. Presentism is the uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

You see, Booker and Harris were both very successful in their respective government roles. As senator of New Jersey, Booker declared Newark the charter school center of the nation, and over the past ten years, students attending charter schools rose from 12 to 33 percent. According to a recent Harvard study, the impact has been impressive. While math skills have remained flat, English gains in Newark charter schools has been significant. But guess what? Thanks to a philosophy of presentism – the current trend being that charter schools are bad for society – Booker has continuously distanced himself from one of his greatest achievements.

The same could be said for Kamala Harris whose truancy campaign brought the number of students not attending school in San Francisco down by over 50%! But the most current way of thinking – in the present – would tell you that fighting truancy is unfair to the poor, and so Senator Harris has apologized for the behavior of the courts against these truant students.

Assuming the present way of thinking is better than it was in the past, Beinart argues, isn’t helpful. Instead you ruin both the present and the future. For example, he goes on, and I quote, “In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were so eager to distinguish themselves from the isolationists of the 1930s that they forgot that an earlier generation’s skepticism of war—born from the disillusionment of World War I—had lessons to teach despite the necessity of World War II.”

Or more recently, “After the economic woes of the Jimmy Carter years, Clinton-era New Democrats were so determined to prove that the party was not antibusiness that they deregulated Wall Street in ways that contributed to the 2008 financial crash.”

We may have made mistakes in the past, but to ignore the past, and all its lessons, we do so at our own peril. ‘Now’ is good and ‘now’ is great, but to see each unit of time divorced from everything that came before it, ends up leading us down the path of making the same mistakes we did before.

Let’s talk about this practically for you and me. I used to do something a little cute with one of my children. If they were in a bad mood or in a bad place, I would walk them to the door and ask them to come back in all refreshed. Start again! Pretend the past hour didn’t happen. You’re coming home from school now for the first time. It was a nice gimmick, and it worked. (It worked so well that I would do it sometimes!)

We all do this. We have a bad day, we’ve been grumpy. So we go to sleep and tell ourselves, tomorrow is a new day, we wake up a new person. Beautiful.

In that respect, the power of now, ignoring the past, presentism, it serves us well.

But what if you keep on making the same mistake? What if you keep on finding yourself in an argument with the same person about the same thing? What if you keep on finding the projects that you pursue to never come to fruition? What if many of your relationships end up getting sabotaged?

Going out the door and coming back in, getting a good night’s sleep, ignoring the past would be a disaster!

We destroy evil, our Torah portion teaches us, not by ignoring it, but by remembering it! Timcheh es Zecher amaleik! We have an obligation to destroy Amaleik and not just the nation, but the evil inside that this nation represents. And you know how we eradicate the memory? Lo tishkach! By not forgetting! We all have demons, we all have flaws, we all have issues. We can’t just shut our eyes to what was. The only way to erase is to remember.

Our Torah portion begins with a rather controversial law – the laws of the captive woman. Ki teitzei lamilchama, when you go to war and you see a beautiful woman, the Torah allows the soldier in the throes of battle, with raging emotions, to take the woman captive and marry her. The Torah then goes on to describe the process she must go through until marriage is permitted; shaving of her hair, crying for her parents, and only then can she be converted as a Jew, and allowed to marry this Jewish soldier.

It is a morally-challenging passage which needs to be explored further and explained. But today, I want to focus on the Kabbalistic read of the section. The Zohar explains that the captive woman represents us, our soul. It represents our soul as it transitions from a place of failure, a place of sin, a place of shame, into a place of holiness and spiritual accomplishment. Commenting on the words of uvach’sa et aviha v’et imah, that she must cry for her parents, the Zohar Hachadash says, da yarcha d’Elul, this is the month of Elul. Her crying for her parents, in some ways represents the process of repentance.

I believe the meaning of the passage is clear. Transitioning to becoming a better person demands of us to focus on our parents, ie, our past. This beautiful woman, our soul, cannot just become a Jew, cannot jump from one reality to the next. She needs to mourn what was, she needs to sit with those uncomfortable memories. And so she shaves her hair, she grows her nails, she cries and she mourns. Why? Because it hurts to think about the past. It hurts to remember who we were. It is painful to be honest about what was once important to us. And it’s also essential.

We don’t ignore the past; we learn from it. As painful as that may be.

One of the classes I teach at Beth Tfiloh is on the topic of failure. In the last class I asked them the most basic existential question of all, who are we, how we define ourselves. And of course they answered with what I expected them to answer; my aspirations, my dreams, my values, my memories.

And I shared with them an idea from Rav Tzadok HaCohen, an idea I’ve shared with some of you before, and that is that the core of our identity, who we are is where and how we fail. Dreams are what we want, values are what we believe, memories are what we think, but failure is who we are.

Our failures are an integral part of our being and that’s why it hurts so much when we try to change. There’s a reason we get angry at this or that, there’s a reason we sabotage relationships with our defensiveness, there’s a reason we cannot control certain passions; our failings are the deepest and most essential part of our soul. And like the Zohar Hachadash teaches us, we cannot just escape the past and jump into the future, we don’t whitewash the past or edit the films of our life, we acknowledge our failings, as painful as it may be, we kick and scream and we cry. That is the avoda, that is the service of this month. And then, as the passage concludes, v’hayta lecha l’isha. If we face our demons with honesty and with humility, G-d welcomes us back as his bride and our relationship with Him and with ourselves is restored.

 

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