Poised to enter Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) after four long decades in the Wilderness, not to mention four centuries in Egyptian bondage before that, Moses instructs the people:
When you enter the land that the Adonai your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Adonai your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Adonai your God will choose to establish His name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before Adonai your God that I have entered the land that Adonai swore to our ancestors to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of Adonai your God. You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Adonai, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-10)
At the very moment the Israelite people are looking forward to a future ripe with possibilities for becoming a people living out God’s covenant in freedom, a nation in their own land, Moses tells them to look backward: Remember where you came from. We are in the middle of Elul, poised to enter the High Holy Days. We are looking forward to a new year of blessings for us, for our families, for our people, for the world. Our hopes are high. Yet this is also our time we are called to look backward: Remember where you came from.
Moses exhorts the Israelites to look back not only to their recent past, but also further back, as well. He tells them: You were slaves in Egypt, but before that your ancestors were fugitive Arameans. Why do the Israelites need to look this far back? Perhaps it is in order to gain self-understanding, appreciation for how far they have come, and a sense of their purpose. Some people feel they need to turn their backs on the past in order to move forward. They believe that the past will anchor them, as indeed it can. This double-edged sword can cut both ways, however. There exists the danger that in looking back, we become caught in the trap of blaming others and thereby evading responsibility for our behavior and choices. If, however, we look back to appreciate our blessings (as the Israelites did), and also to understand, learn, accept, and then let go where appropriate (which the Israelites also needed to do), then looking back can be productive and helpful. Slavery was a terrible thing, but in looking back and remembering the horror or servitude, the Israelites could accomplish three things:
- Appreciate God’s redemption and their freedom.
- Empathetically recognize the importance of assuring freedom for others, especially those in their midst.
- Let go of any remaining vestige of slave mentality anchoring them to the worst experiences of their past.
When we do teshuvah (repentance), we engage in a spiritual looking back at the past year — what we have done, what we have failed to do, how we have affected others — and we often look further back, as well. There is much encouragement today to look back to childhood and family of origin to understand ourselves more fully; that is, why we are the way we are and why we do what we do. The double-edged sword exists here, too: There is the danger of becoming enmeshed in blaming others for our failures and mistakes, but there is also the opportunity to let go of anger, resentment, and the conviction that we are enslaved by our early experiences.
When we can look back in this way, we can see the coming year as the Promised Land of possibility in our quest to become the people we wish to be and were meant to be, just as Israel entered the Promised Land to become the nation she sought to become and was meant to become. As Israel entered Eretz Yisrael overflowing with possibility and dreams, so can we enter the New Year brimming with potential and direction.May Elul bring us closer to God, closer to those we love, and closer to ourselves.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman