Judaism is filled with backward-looking. We are encouraged to do this all the time. We even have a day in the year dedicated to it: Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikkaron, the Day of Memorial, the day for remembering the past year, and looking back over it. Zikkaron, memory, remembering, looking backward, is a huge element in Jewish life, whether religious or secular. That is what the annual yahrzeit is for, keeping alive the memory of those we have lost; we have the memorial service yizkor on Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals; ritual life is structured round looking back, keeping memory alive.
Jews are the great people of memory, of looking back, of recording and counting and memorialising. It is there at every turn in the liturgy: “God of our ancestors”, “the one who redeemed us from slavery”, “renew our days, as of old”. Every Friday night when we say kiddush over the wine we come across that special phrase, inserted into many disparate liturgical texts, “zecher litziat mitzrayim”: ‘in memory of the coming out of Egypt’. The 10 Commandments – which are part of our Torah readings this week - begin with a call to look back: “I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. This is a significant difference from the first commandment in the Christian tradition, which starts with our second commandment about not worshipping other gods. Our first commandment – and it is not even framed in the form of a demand - is to root yourself in the past, in the saga, the myth, the history, the multi-generational story of the Jewish people. All this seems far away from Charlotte Bronte: “I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward”.
I’d go so far as to say that Jews are obsessed with the past: it can be the far distant past of the tradition, or the near distant past. The Holocaust is always sitting on our shoulder, and the mantra ‘Never Again’ is the so-called lesson to be learnt from that past: whether it is Jewish self-perception here in the UK, with the constant anxiety about anti-semitism (in other words a repletion of the past) or whether it is Israeli politics which is deeply entrenched in a Shoah-dominated world view (or at least uses – some might say misuses- the Shoah as a rhetorical tool in its armoury), Jewish life is soaked in looking backwards, remembering its history.
Sometimes our view of the past is that it is soaked in horrors; at other times the looking back might be experienced almost as the opposite - as a golden age. People go misty-eyed at the world of yiddishkeit, an era when Jews were poor but happy; we are great nostalgists for lost worlds of community gatherings, family simchas, frum grandparents - it’s all myth-making but a lot of it still goes on, that harking back to earlier times. We are skilled at retreating from the complex demands of the present into stories: fables about Jewish life as it was, as we imagined it was, as we airbrush out the cruelties, the sadnesses, the divorces and the affairs, the sitting shiva if someone God-forbid married out, the domestic violence (physical and emotional), or those who didn’t marry, or couldn’t conceive: painful lives far from the cosy fantasy of generation following generation, each link in the chain filled with good memories. Jewish nostalgia suffuses the past with a rosy glow. But it is a cover-up job. That kind of nostalgia is a kind of backward-looking for the deluded. And I guess most of us Jews do it to some extent, but I have learned to try to treat it with caution.
And what about looking forward? Where does that figure for us? Where and how do we collectively look forwards? The texts we are reading in the Torah cycle at the moment will be dominated by one motif: the image of the journey to a promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey - a sort of nostalgia projected into the future; the garden of Eden renewed at the end of the journey, over the horizon, in the future, always waiting for us beyond the wilderness - but always just out of reach. And then there is the figure of the Messiah, who comes at the end of days, prayed for every day by the devout - the Messiah and the Messianic age being the most powerful myths in the tradition that point us towards the future, keeping hope alive.
Consider too those phrases we read this week from chapter 19 of Exodus: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people”, a “treasured possession” (19:5/6) – they are thrilling, daunting, challenging words. But they point forwards. Yes, they make us feel special, wanted, important in the scheme of things; they are part of the foundation of how Jews have thought of themselves over the generations, part of that complex and fraught and disputed sense of ‘chosenness’, they speak about Jews as distinctive, as incarnating something different from other peoples, a difference with a meaning, a difference with a demand, a task, a requirement: ‘you have a job to do in the world: to bring holiness into the world through how you live, how you live with each other, how you act towards each other, and how you live with others, who are not part of ‘you’, the strangers, the outcasts, the marginal: how you live with those who are like you and how you live with those who are different from you, and how you live with the rest of creation, with animal life and with nature with the planet itself. All this – how you live, the choices you make – make you into a ‘holy’ people’. Holiness isn’t a given: it’s work, it’s something to be achieved, enacted, in everyday life.
In other words, ‘holiness’ is a movement towards the future. It’s not about what you did yesterday, it’s not about congratulating yourself on what has been achieved: it’s about now, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. It’s about something that is always just coming into being, that waits to be brought into being, by us: it’s a restless, ceaseless, reaching into the future – to the next thing that needs to be done – a striving after acts of love and justice and kindness and compassion, a striving done in the sure and certain knowledge - paradoxical knowledge - both that this is what is required and that you can never achieve it, you can never rest on your laurels and say ‘job done’, ‘now we really are a holy people.’
“Atem tihiyu li...you shall be a holy people” the Torah says (Exodus 19:6) – not “you are” such a people – Jews face forwards, aware of what needs still to be done, aware of incompleteness, of the task ahead. We are a people who look forward, our faces turned towards the future - as well as a people who, for better or worse, look backwards.
So what is Charlotte Bronte getting at? What does it mean not to look back or forwards but upwards? I think this is more than a simple expression of piety, a way of talking about that traditional picture of looking to God, who is pictured as ‘above’ us. Because she isn’t a using metaphor about space. She is talking about time: ‘looking back’ and ‘looking forward’ is about time. So what might it mean to ‘look upwards’ as a way of orienting ourselves in time?
Again, I turn to our Exodus text. Because there a strange quirk in how Exodus 19 begins. This, we remember, is the lead up to the moment of divine revelation at Sinai, when a whole people are standing in the divine presence. And the text begins: In the third month (on the third new moon), after the children of Israel came out of Egypt, ba-yom ha-ze, on this day, they came to wilderness of Sinai. It doesn’t read ‘on that day’ – a day long gone, a day in history, a day that belongs to looking backward in time. But ‘on this day’. This is when the revelation of the divine happens: it is not in the past, nor is it is not in some far off day in the future; it is on this day, today. I’m drawing on a Hasidic reading of this text, and Martin Buber’s reading of the text, both of which draw our attention to the presence of God, of the Eternal, here and now.
The promise of the Torah, read in this way, is that if we hold ourselves open in the present moment to what is unfolding now, on this day hold ourselves open to what occurs to us, and in us, and between us – then there is a meeting, an intersection, of timelessness with time, and the Eternal One whose name is “I am” – ehyeh – is with us and in us and connecting us.
Exodus 19 verse 5 could be said to continue this theme: If you listen, listen and keep on listening [the verb is repeated for emphasis] to my voice, then you will be, become, my special treasure... The call is for attentiveness, listening. That’s why we need some silence in our lives, and in our services, opportunities to listen to what is above us, around us, all the time – but that we might miss if we are continually looking forwards or looking backwards. Too much time spent in the past – or too much time seeking the new, looking for the next new thing – both miss the drama of spiritual life, which is happening all the time, at this moment. The revelation of the divine, of divinity, is always now, on this day. It is, so to speak, now or it’s never.
So thank you Charlotte Bronte for pointing the way, giving us the clue, counter-intuitively, to avoid too much forward looking and too much backward looking. And encouraging us to look upward, and outward, and become aware of the wondrous nature of existence, the dizzying tumultuous richness and grandeur of life on earth, unfolding moment by precious moment.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, January 18th 2014]