With the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, echoes from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are filling the airwaves, including Trump’s campaign tagline and promise to “Make America Great Again.” It would be fair to say that nearly every presidential candidate has a vision for “making America great;” however, it is this campaign’s use of the word again which is somewhat irksome, especially at this season in the Jewish calendar.
This Shabbat is the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar, and the beginning of a period known as t’lata d’puranuta, “The Three Weeks of Admonition.” (As the 17th is considered a minor fast day, the fast is delayed until Sunday.) The three weeks that follow are considered a time of mourning, leading to our communal observance of the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av), and our annual commemoration of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time.
One of the major ritual practices associated with Tisha b’Av is the chanting of the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations). The penultimate verse of the book reads, “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, / And let us come back; / Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21, Jewish Study Bible translation, p. 1602). This particular verse offers a brief, uplifting moment of comfort at the conclusion of an otherwise bleak biblical text. Additionally, the verse is recited at the conclusion of every Torah service in the synagogue, and is chanted when the Torah is returned to the Ark — hashiveinu A-do-nai ei-lecha v’nashuva, chadeish ya-meinu k’kedem.
To be brought back to God, to have our days renewed, and to be given another chance in the wake of tragic circumstances all make sense. But to have our days renewed as of old, implies that things used to be better, that there is some vision of the past that has been lost that we somehow need to recapture, and that God will somehow provide for us again.
The recitation of chadeish yameinu k’kedem (renew our days as of old) is familiar, comforting, and is a moment in the synagogue service where most people sing along. Yet this verse presents a problematic view — namely, that our best days are truly behind us and we seek to return to them. While it is most likely that the original text from Lamentations was written in a time of exile the destruction of the temple was fresh in the author’s mind, these days, we would do better to ask ourselves, “What is the as of old that we seek to return to Jewishly?” Most of us are divested from the notion of rebuilding a sacrificial temple in Jerusalem, and two thousand years of distance from the ancient priestly rites means that what once was cannot lead to what will ultimately be.
Similarly, suggesting that we should be engaged in the process of “making America great again,” implies that America, at one time or at various points in our history, was great, and we need to go back to reclaim that nostalgic understanding of greatness. But America will never look like it once did. How it might have appeared is different to each individual, a personalized painting of yesteryear, with brushstrokes smoothing over painful, long-buried realities, a fictionalized story that we tell ourselves so often that we convince ourselves of its veracity. Life is never as glorious “as it used to be.”
Or can life and our world be somehow better? We might do better to ask ourselves, “Where are we going?” Every year at our celebration of the Pesach seder, we are (in the words of Rabban Gamliel) to see ourselves as if we went forth from slavery in Egypt. Where some of our biblical ancestors may have waxed poetically about life in Egypt and expressed a desire to return, our seder reminds us that we must be eternally forward-looking, that l’shana ha-ba’ah bi-y’rushalayim (next year in Jerusalem) is not a hope whereby we return to the past, but a vision for hopeful future redemption, a better time, still ahead of us. That the Torah itself concludes without the Israelites setting foot in the Promised Land, with Moses only seeing the land from afar, conveys the notion that the story, our collective journey, is not yet complete, and we are still completing the journey.
Our past, our days of old, can only serve to inform us and remind us of what was. We need to build for a better future, learning from “our days of old,” but we don’t need to go back in time to relive the concept of again, the idea of what once was. Crafting a vision for the future is an immensely difficult task, but articulating a forward-thinking and forward-looking hope of a world redeemed, remains a characteristically Jewish idea.
Rabbi Paul Jacobson serves Temple Avodat in River Edge, New Jersey.