Renew Our Days

Persistence of Memory bench, Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. Photo by the author, February 18, 2019.

I grew up watching Happy Days on TV. In one episode, Arnold’s, the drive-in “greasy spoon” where the characters all hang out, burns to the ground. When the gang tours the wreckage after the fire, Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler to whom I am not related) tries his signature cool guy move of banging the jukebox to get it to start playing a song.

The charred front panel of the jukebox falls pitifully to the ground.

We are all trying to go home again. Back to our former state of health, back to our youth, back to the good old days – those Happy Days the show refers to, the “simpler time” of the 1950s that people living through the turbulent ‘seventies thought they were nostalgic for. Ironically, when my friend Jeff Finkelstein lost his father Norman last fall, part of his nostalgia was to display the books his father had written – including my favorite, a book called The Way Things Never Were, about how misplaced all that 1950s nostalgia really was.

When Leviticus 25:10 declares that in the fiftieth, the “Jubilee (yovel)” year, “you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family,” it is the ultimate in nostalgia. No matter how hard your luck is, you’ll never have to wait more than fifty years to be restored to your former glory. No matter how greedy the person buying up land from those hard luck farmers is, they’ll never hold on to it for more than fifty years.

The yovel is part of a larger theme in Torah about putting people back together when they fall apart – an imperative that both the Torah and later Jewish law take pretty far. Deuteronomy 15:8 commands that when we encounter a poor person, “you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”  How much effort do we put into fulfilling this command? Rashi says, “This implies you must provide him even with a horse to ride on and a slave to run before him.”[i]  Maimonides concurs, “Even if it was the custom of a person was rich but is now a poor person . . .. And this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse,”[ii] to which Rabbi Yosef Karo adds, in the Shulchan Aruch, “and a servant.”[iii]

Even if you can’t stand the person who is suffering, you’re still on the hook. “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back,” says Exodus 23:4, and the next verse continues, “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it (literally, ‘raise it with him,’ meaning you and your enemy do it together).”

The yovel is about giving a person back a parcel of land that I bought from him when he was in dire straits. But all this other stuff? How is any of that my responsibility? It’s a question people often ask about places like the federally funded health center where I work, and in moments of frustration even people who work in places like that sometimes ask themselves. Is it my fault someone missed the bus? Didn’t realize they needed to study English to get their citizenship? Neglected their kids school forms until they missed the deadline (oh, wait, that last one was me …)?

No, not your fault, but the Torah is clear that doesn’t matter. Ki yamukh achikha, if your brother becomes poor, says the text, but using a word that seems to mean, “if your brother is laid low,” coming from the same root as the word for “short,” his kinsmen are supposed to redeem his loss for him, or he should try to do it himself when his fortunes turn.  But if no one comes to his aid and his luck doesn’t improve, the yovel is there to set him back on his feet – if necessary, at the expense of the person who got his land in the first place.

Kinship creates responsibility, but so does happenstance. “When you encounter” doesn’t imply any prior relationship, just bumping into someone in the street – a situation most urban Americans know all too well, and don’t necessarily respond to in the most generous way (the author included). Included in that is someone who happens to walk into my exam room, a friend I’ve lost contact with who suffers a loss, and yes, even someone who sees me as a sworn enemy for whom I am nevertheless the person most equipped to bail them out.

There’s a quotation I’ve seen attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so many times, with so many subtle variations, that I automatically assumed it was mis-attributed: “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”  Turns out the quote is his, and the variation exists because he didn’t just say it once but used versions of it in many different speeches and essays, among them his opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in January 1963.[iv]

Heschel meant that in a democracy, the decision-makers might bear the guilt for actions like segregation or war, but that the population that put those leaders in power were also responsible for the consequences of their decisions. But like the words of any prophet, there is another layer of meaning in Heschel’s words. “When you encounter” someone who has been “laid low,” you may bear no guilt or blame whatsoever for their situation. It may even be, at the risk of victim-blaming, “their own fault.”  But that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility – not for how they got into that mess, but for how they are going to get out of it.

Which leaves us with one final problem: if you don’t happen to be the person holding someone’s ancestral land, or the owner of the pawn shop where they hocked their grandmother’s china, how could you possibly fulfill this obligation, even if you are somehow on the hook for it?  For that matter, even if you are holding their land, doesn’t that now leave you, who paid for the land fairly, as the injured party who must give it up without compensation? How did this work in principle, and why on earth would we commit ourselves to doing the same?

You’d be right to wonder. There is much skepticism over whether the yovel was ever really practiced even in Biblical times (a rabbit hole down which I do not plan to go but follow the endnote for at least one such lively discussion), and certainly not after the Jews returned to Israel from Babylonia after the first exile.[v]  What can we learn from a commandment that is at best obsolete and at worst was never followed in the first place?

I see multiple people daily who hope that I can restore them to the way their bodies, and often their souls, were “as of old,” before illness, injury, loss, emotional trauma, or just plain aging displaced them from the life they once had. In many cases I am even supposed to be the instrument of restitution and retribution, helping them to achieve an elusive measure of justice by bearing witness to scars physical and emotional.

I succeed in this mission far less often. The equivalent of their “ancestral land,” that elusive restoration, simply doesn’t exist anymore, and its persistence in memory has about as much chance of becoming reality as, well, Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” (the one with the melting clocks). There will be no horse, no servant, no 160 acres. No matter how much I lend them from my open hand, it will not be “sufficient to meet the need.”  The world has turned, time has moved on, and the past is no more, or at least is irrevocably altered – and in some cases, I find, never existed in the first place. Yet I am still responsible? Responsible for what?

The answer lies at the end of the most devastating book of the Bible, the book of Lamentations. The next-to-last line,[vi] which we repeat as a coda after the much more scathing last line so that we end in hope and not despair, reads in Hebrew, Hashiveinu Hashem eilekha v’nashuva, hadesh yameinu ke-kedem. Usually this translates as, “Return us, oh Lord, to you and we will return; renew our days as of old.”

There’s that nostalgia again, banging on the charred jukebox thinking it will still spin a tune. But kedem, the word usually translated as “of old” or “before,” has another meaning: East. My responsibility is not to turn back the clock, like another Seventies icon, Christopher Reeves’ Superman, literally does to save Lois Lane from dying in the rubble of the earthquake caused by Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. It is to turn the clock forward and renew our days “like the East” – where the sun rises, and every day the work of creation is renewed, not exactly like yesterday, but full of possibility in a world where the tragedy did happen, where the illness is real, but where we are going to live, and move forward, anyway.

Letting go of the pictures of yesterday is excruciating – for some people I care for it is the essence of their self-image. For some of them it is literal land that was taken from them, an orchard in Bhutan that they will never see again. For some, having me point forward instead of back sounds like mockery, as they look at me still relatively able and independent. It’s excruciating for me, too, because my self-image as a doctor wants to believe that I can work those kinds of miracles.

Nevertheless, I look to that East, hoping to renew . . . well, hope. To give something to those who never had anything in the first place. To give something back, even if it is something different, to those who have lost their place. And to take up the burden even of those who would rather knock me off my place – together with them – so that we might see the East, the dawn, of a time when we no longer feel that way about each other.

[i] Rashi to the above verse.

[ii] Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:3

[iii] Yoreh De’ah 250:1

[iv] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/heschel-abraham-joshua#:~:text=In%20his%20opening%20address%20at,tradition%2C%20the%20Negro%20problem%20is

[v] https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/82682/evidence-that-yovel-was-ever-observed among others. https://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical/comments/t81zh1/is_there_evidence_that_jews_practiced_the_jubilee/ is a more academic and not specifically Jewish thread but cites much published research on the topic.

[vi] Lamentations 5:21

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients. For a complete archive of his writings, plus media, event listings, and even source sheets for further learning, visit healerswholisten.com.
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