Nostalgia is a powerful part of the human experience. At some point we have all longed for that which was; that which may not have materialized; that which we know in our hearts could not be, yet we cannot help but ponder the “what if?”. As Robert Frost so brilliantly put it: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both.”
As a people, we have a collective notion of nostalgia, wishing for the “good ol’ days”:
השיבנו יהוה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם
Allow us to return unto You Hashem, Renew our days as of old.
There is something about the past that seems wholesome; simpler; innocent.
When my eldest was born, those around me offered the most useless, but on some level profound, advice: They grow so fast, savor every moment. It is hard for parents to heed this advice. When a newborn is screaming at 3am for no apparent reason it is hard to savor any moment. Yet, when those sleepless nights are in the rearview mirror and we reflect on how our children have grown, it is hard not to become nostalgic. In not so subtle ways God’s response to Adam and Chava’s choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in פרשת בראשית – Parashat Bereishit, is that of a nostalgic parent.
In the moments after eating the fruit, we are told,
ותפקחנה, עיני שניהם, וידעו, כי עירמם הם
And they were opened, both of their eyes, and they knew they were naked.
Adam and Chava turned fig leaves into belts to cover what they believed to be their immodesty. As The Holy One, wanders through the Garden to check on the children they hide in shame from their Creator. Like a parent playing “hide-n-seek” with a small child – who knows full-well where their children are – the Lord utters the single most soul-crushing word in Tanakh: אַיֶּכָּה – Where are you?
Sharing the root with the word אֵיכָה – Lamentation or alas, אַיֶּכָּה is a concept known all too well by every parent who has watched their children grow. God knew where Adam and Chava physically were. It is really possible that the Eternal, whose presence is everywhere, did not know where Adam and Chava were? No. Hashem knew something was different.
God was not asking the physical, “where are you?”. God was asking: אַיֶּכָּה, where are my children? Where is the boy I formed? Where is the girl whose hair I used to braid? Where is the boy who reached for My hand after he fell? Where is the girl who called for Me when she feared the darkness of night?
They would rely on each other as they build their home together. They would forge their individual paths, carving out a destiny and future of their own. God knew the children were now adults but called out אַיֶּכָּה – where are you, lamenting that things could not be what they once were.
Every milestone in a child’s life, though exciting, brings a bit of pain to a parent. The day our children are too heavy to carry; they day our child cogently disagrees with us; the day our children drive on their own; the day they embark on their journey beyond our home – these are the moments of אַיֶּכָּה.
Although we are proud and hope that we have given them the strongest foundation to tackle all of life’s adversities, we cannot help but reminisce about those simple moments when playing “peek-a-boo” brought the biggest smile and deepest laugh to our children. We cannot help but nostalgically think: חדש ימינו כקדם – restore our days as days of old. Let me hold my newborn once again. Let me put my preschooler on my shoulders once more.
The Holy One knew that the children were adults with minds and hearts of their own. They needed to leave the nursery, the childhood home, and make a path for themselves. God, in a moment of tenderness, places garments on Adam and Chava, and longingly looks as they head out into a world. This is צמצום – Tzimtzum (Divine contraction). A parent must resist the urge to correct, to comment, to intervene. A parent must let their children make their own choices.
After Adam and Chava set forth from their childhood, Keruvim were placed at the entrance with a flaming whirling sword, guarding the path back to the Tree of Life. They – God, Adam, and Chava – all knew they could never come home again, at least not as things once were. Just as one cannot step twice into the same stream, a parent-child relationship is always changing, and can never be what it once was.
They grow so fast, savor every moment fore one moment the children are small and the next, כאחד ממנו, לדעת, טוב ורע – they [become] like one of us, who knows good from bad. We lament what was lost, but know that our children must grow and tack their own course. We leave the cloud of nostalgia because the choices we make to move forward are what make all the difference.