I fell deep into a rabbit hole this week: a Labor Day visit to Liberty, New York, afforded me a visit to the site (more accurately the locked former entrance) of Grossinger’s Resort, one of my favorite childhood places. This drive-by visit got me stuck in a moment, to paraphrase U2, that I couldn’t get out of. I sought out photos and videos of the hotel as I remembered it; I also found images of the damage that years of neglect did to the spaces that held such joy for me as a young child. Even though every image made me even sadder, I couldn’t stop clicking. Trust me: when you’re looking at old matchbook covers on eBay, you’ve gone a long way down.
This is not about Grossinger’s, obviously; rather, it’s about me. Like Margaret, the subject of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall,” who grieves as the autumn leaves begin to fall, these memories and the images of decay remind me that I’m not as young as I once was. “It is Margaret you mourn for,” writes the poet, and that’s exactly what was making me sad. Holding onto the past can negatively impact one’s mental health.
But sometimes we need to hold onto the past. The Torah in this week’s reading of Ki Tetze is adamant that we cannot allow members of the nations of Amon or Moav admission into our people, al devar asher lo kidmu etchem ba-lechem u-vamayim ba-derech be-tzeitzchem me-Mitzrayim, “because they did not meet you with food or water as you traveled out of Egypt.” Seventeenth-century exegete Rabbi Shlomo Lunshitz in his Keli Yakar explains that this was not merely a withholding of hospitality; it was part of a plot to get the people of Israel so hungry and thirsty that they would rush to devour the libations of idol worship with which Amon and Moav (somewhat successfully) tried to tempt the Israelites.
When there’s a moral lesson to be learned, we cannot forget the past. The Torah emphasizes that not even a tenth-generation descendant from Amon or Moav can convert to Judaism. For us, the past lives on in the present. Such modern maxims as “you can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one” may sound like good advice (and might actually be good advice if you’re thinking about bidding on a Grossinger’s ashtray), but we also need to carefully weigh which memories, which past experiences, we absolutely cannot let go.
Seeing all our kids back at school this week – happy, tanned, and taller – made me think about what aspects of the past we should throw away and which ones we dare not. Indeed, that’s what we are supposed to be thinking about during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana. So, for example: if I didn’t apply myself in eighth grade, ninth grade is a whole new beginning – I’m not locked into who I was; that kid who was mean to me in kindergarten is now in third grade – and maybe she’s different now. And: the ability to focus that I developed at the end of last year is something I need to make even stronger this year, so I need to read every night; the way my friend listened to me when I was down made me realize who my real friends are.
These are the types of questions we can help our kids ask themselves, while we ask ourselves our own versions of those questions. Doing so helps us realize when we need to free ourselves, and when we must remain stuck.