I am in the midst of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I am taken with the author’s meditations on journeying. She quotes a Tibetan sage who lived six hundred years ago. He teaches about the meaning of a path, a track. In Tibetan, this is called, shul.
[A shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by— a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.Too often we pine after such impressions. We long for what we believe we had years ago. We conjure images of the past and mythologize distant events.
After seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time I asked my grandmother who spent her first ten years living in a shtetl outside of Bialystok about shtetl life. I walked away from the show believing much of the play’s idyllic portrayal. My Nana immediately disabused me of such notions. “The Cossacks murdered Jews. We were always hungry. No one in the shtetl got along.” (By the way Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, upon which the Broadway play is based, offers a more realistic and sobering account.)
Our wandering ancestors also reimagine the past. “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:5-6)
One wonders if the intention of our wandering was to get lost. Then such mythic remembrances could die in the wilderness and only a new future could be seen. Then only the dream would be held in our hearts. Perhaps God sets us out to wander with this purpose in mind. To move forward towards dreams we must let go of our longings for yesterday.
And yet the past appears to offer security. Memory seems more clear than the future’s uncertainty. We cannot know what future will look like. And in this unknowing our discomfort grows. We long for the impression of what used to be there.
Nostalgia pulls us backward. It is emotionally satisfying and perhaps even a times uplifting. But it is also a drug that quickly becomes toxic. Why? Because we mistakenly believe that the past is known and the future uncertain. Our minds play tricks on us. We reimagine events. We write new histories. Thus nostalgia makes for a poor foundation on which to construct a future. In fact the word “nostalgia” came into English usage to describe a medical condition of intense homesickness. During the American Civil War, for instance, Northern doctors attributed a number of soldiers’ deaths to nostalgia.
I require no gifts of prophecy to declare that the future will look different than the past. Do we worry like the Israelites who long for the certainty of slavery or do we ask difficult questions? Do we choose an uncertain picture of an unknown future over an imperfect impression of a worn past? Do we choose a dream, a vision over nostalgia, longing? Do we look to long term stability over short term rewards?
The Talmud teaches:
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)I do not know what the trees I plant will look like in 70 years. Who among us believes that we will live beyond 120 years? I cannot know if the dreams I hold in my heart will flower or even bear fruit. Nonetheless I pledge to choose the future over the past. I knowingly choose uncertainty over fading impressions. I choose dreams!
“So God led the people around and around, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 13:18)
I will continue to wander.
And we will write a new Torah.