There is a large cemetery in the annals of academia where the past lies buried. This cemetery takes the form of history books monuments and museums. We visit our past, research and teach it, but we don’t live it. The past is simply, in the past. Judaism is not that way. The past for us doesn’t only inform our present, it is our present. Moses is not just a historical figure for us. For us, Moses is you and me.
Our sages said Moses never died. That doesn’t mean he is wandering on some hilltop in the Middle East looking for the Promised Land. We know Moses passed away because the Torah says so. In fact G-d buried Moses Himself. But though Moses passed away, Moses isn’t dead. He is alive in you and me.
If Moses died, his story is his-tory. If he lives on, his story is our-story. It’s not just about living up to the past, it is about the past living on through us. There is one stage on which a saga plays out. Moses played the first act. Each generation performed successive acts, now it is our turn. We can’t just walk away. We are part of a story, we are the unwritten page. If we walk away our story remains unwritten. Their story remains unwritten.
Around the Year
This is reflective in the way we observe our holiday traditions. On Passover we declare that it was not only our ancestors, who left Egypt, but that in every generation we must feel as if we have left Egypt. If I celebrate without experiencing the thrill of emancipation and the energy of freedom from the burdens and limitations that weigh me down, I haven’t celebrated Passover correctly.
Before lighting the candles on Chanukah we thank G-d for performing miracles in those days in this time. Our usual understanding is that these miracles were performed in those days during this time of year, but the deeper meaning is that we thank G-d for the miracles He performed in those days and those He continues to perform in this [modern] time. In other words, on Chanukah we thank G-d not only for past miracles but for our miracles. Chanukah isn’t a relic; it is a relevant dynamic celebration of life.
On Purim we chant the book of Esther, in which the miracle of Purim is described. The book has ten chapters and the sages ruled that if we read the book backwards, meaning chapter ten first then nine, till one, we have not fulfilled our obligation. The book must be read front to back, not back to front. The Baal Shem Tov offered a spiritual insight. If we read the Megilah as a story that occurred in the past, rather than a contemporary miracle relevant to our lives today, we have missed the entire point.
Back to Front
Let’s not walk away from this tantalizing insight just yet. Let’s chew on it for another moment. Reading the Megilah back to front means to begin at the end and work our way back to the beginning. The end of our nation’s story has yet to be written, but for now the story is up to our generation. We are the interim end of the story. Reading the Megilah end to beginning is another way of saying that we focus on the present first and then take time to study, research and review the past.
When you do it that way, the past remains in the past, leaving no direct link between it and the present. When you begin at the beginning or with the tales of our past and work your way forward to our present, you arrive with a keen appreciation for our role as a link in a glorious chain. Abraham is not just a figure from three thousand years ago; he is the first link in a chain we hold in our hands today. Deborah is not only a prophetess from an ancient time; she held in her very hands the very torch that has been passed to us here today. Her torch is burning in our hands. Her vision enriches our lives.
This is what our sages meant when they wrote that Moses never died. He did indeed die, but if his story died, our story is a new story. If Moses never died then Moses lives on in me. If Moses never died then Moses is you because you can be Moses too. You continue his life story and write a page in his book.
Pinchas and Elijah
Our sages taught that Pinchas and Elijah were one and the same. It is unclear whether they meant that Pinchas lived for several centuries and was known in a later day as the prophet Elijah or if, as the Kabbalists maintained, Elijah was a reincarnation of Pinchas.
The particulars of this identity are less critical than the overall message. Whether it was the same person or two bodies with one soul the message is poignant. Pinchas might have lived a long time ago, but his zeal and single minded commitment was still alive in Elijah. It wasn’t just for a different time and place, irrelevant to Elijah’s time. Pinchas and his life’s story are as relevant as ever. He is alive. He is walking down the street. Look here, do you see the man or woman striding purposefully down the street? That is Pinchas. But, you ask, this man is Abe. I know, I reply, I don’t mean that his name is Pinchas. I mean that he embodies Pinchas. Today, right here, right now, Pinchas is alive.
Viewed this way, the past comes alive in the present and imbues us with passion. How can you not be charmed by a religion that speaks not only about Daniel, but to Daniel, as if he were sitting right here in our midst? How can you not be enchanted by a culture that debates not only the ideas of Maimonides, but Maimonides himself as if he were sitting right at our table? This is a religion that bridges the gap of time, preserving the vibrancy, joviality, brilliance and verve of our previous greats.
It is a nation that marries past to present and present to future and thus maintains a firm grip on its compass. We know where we are headed because we know where we are from. Not only where our ancestors came from, but where we come from. The day we let go of our past is the day we are left rudderless in the waters. Our past is our anchor, our present is our direction and our future is our destination. Together, past, present and future, lead us on a path that reaches for G-d.
I once heard about a Palestinian, who was held prisoner in an Israeli cell on Passover. He noticed the Jewish guard eating bread and asked why he was violating Passover? The guard retorted that he sees no need to deprive himself only because a people he had never met claims to have been liberated on this day. The prisoner later shared that at that moment his hope was rekindled. The way he figured it, a nation that forgets its past forfeits its future.