Deuteronomy The Idolatry of Nostalgia (Parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17)
“I was born near sunset.”
Though the writer Michael Chabon made this statement about himself in the introduction to his book Summerland, he claims, rightly in my opinion, that it describes a part of the human condition. We seem to come naturally by the feeling of “belatedness,” as Chabon calls it – the sense of having “shown up just as light and fire were fading from the sky.”
This sentiment is quite popular in the United States right now. Most dramatically, Donald Trump’s campaign, captured by its slogan “Make America Great Again,” is appealing directly to it. The appeal is to our sense that there was a better world in the past where we (or those before us) enjoyed greater prosperity and security, that we have regrettably lost that world or had it taken from us, and that we have the capacity to return to it.
Of course, that idealized past never really existed. As many have pointed out, the longed-for past has become denuded of its racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic elements. It has been whitewashed of the reality that the supposedly shared prosperity and greatness was limited to a segment of society.
In the haze of dissolution and distance, as our memory fades, we often retain a nostalgic longing for an edited and uncomplicated past that never actually existed. In some ways, we can only move forward with our lives because we do forget, in part; we can’t hold onto everything. And forgetting part of what happened is crucial for nostalgia.
Human beings have a propensity for it – for transforming our past, consciously and unconsciously, into a reduced, distorted, and longed-for place that serves our needs in the present as a wonderful place we fantasize about, or even wish we could escape to. That longing sometimes functions as a foolhardy attempt to assert human control over the present in a way that is simply not possible.
Every reader of the Bible is familiar with this stance. The depiction of the Israelites’ disturbing longing to return to slavery in Egypt testifies to an ancient awareness of this characterological human trait. It speaks to the power of the uncertain present and future, to how fear of the unknown and frustration at the present condition can transform our memory of what has been and cloud our ability to assess, understand, and work wisely and humanely with our present circumstances.
The reduction and fetishization of the past smacks of idolatry. One of the great biblical insights that is amplified in later Jewish tradition is that God is both a noun and a verb. God’s very name in the Torah illustrates this idea. Y-H-W-H, the biblical name for God, is “an impossible construction of the verb ‘to be’” teaches Rabbi Arthur Green in his book Seek My Face, Speak My Name. The name encompasses that which was, is, and will be. It communicates the wonderful combination of God both “being and becoming, noun and verb, stasis and process,” writes Rabbi Green. God is both the moving, flowing sea of ever evolving reality and the ground of being, the source of stability in this quixotic world that provides us with a sense of purpose when we live in reaction to and relation with God.
Idolatry, then, is the worship of the static and reduced. Material possessions are a common idolatrous object whose acquisition we naively believe will bring us both happiness and enduring security. When we indulge the desire for both and try to satisfy that desire with material possessions, we are in effect rejecting and attempting to arrest the evolving state of reality. So, too, when we exalt an idyllic, sanitized past that never really existed. In both cases, whether denying an aspect of our own past or of the Divine (and indeed of reality), we make a part of reality into a god, delusionally thinking we can control our tempestuous world through human imagination and action.
This week’s parasha, Re’eh, forcefully and repeatedly enjoins the Israelites to destroy, when they conquer the land, all remnants of the idolatrous habits of the land of Canaan’s previous inhabitants, an elaboration of the general biblical prohibition against idol worship. Perhaps the Torah is anticipating that, in the Israelites’ imminent radically transformed reality, when they cross into Israel and begin a new way of life where God is not providing for them as directly as in the wilderness, the temptation will be profound to worship something static that may provide a sense of stability and comfort. In their new life without daily, direct encounter with God’s beneficence, the Israelites may risk becoming enthralled with their own sense of power, and be tempted by forms of worship that exalt human capacity more than connecting them to the Source of Being.
Moses instructs the Israelites to destroy all remnants of the previous inhabitants’ idolatrous ways and “seek out and come to” worship in “the place where God chooses” to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:5). Though the reference is to what will be the Temple in Jerusalem, a site of worship carefully crafted to enable people to encounter Y-H-W-H, in this instruction the emphasis is on the yet-unspecified place for finding God. The ongoing encounter with the Divine, though it will ultimately be centered on a particular place, will require not hearkening back to an imagined and false past, or relying on static modes of being, but being open to what is yet to be revealed.
Rabbi Daniel Klein was ordained by Hebrew College in 2010. In addition to being the Director of Admissions for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, he is also the Director of Student Life for the College and serves as the Rabbi in Residence of The Boston Synagogue.