Appreciate the present with a recitation of the past

Rabbi Josef Davidson

In the title story of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus,” a young man from Brooklyn’s lower middle-class has been invited to dinner at his girlfriend’s home in one of Long Island’s more posh neighborhoods. 

Her family has a huge home, and dinner is served by a full-time  live-in maid. Her father made his fortune as a plumber. He worked hard, reinvested his profits into his business and built it into one that affords the family every luxury. 

Probably because his daughter has brought home someone from the old neighborhood, the father waxes nostalgic over the days when he was just starting to build his business. As he speaks, he describes how very difficult life was at that time. As he is speaking, his daughter, his wife, even his relatively laid-back son interrupt him and inquire as to the reason for reminding them of when he was poor. After all, they are not poor now, and they have a palatial home, a maid, membership in the country club and social standing. What good does it do to rehash the past?

Readers of this week’s Torah portion may well ask the same question, as it opens with a description of an annual ceremony in which the first fruits were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem (“the place where God would choose”). As each brought his bounty of first fruits, he was required to recite verbatim a short history of the Israelites, beginning with the words: 

Arami Oved Avi — My ancestor was a wandering (lost?) Aramean, who, few in number, descended to Egypt and resided there, where they became a great and very populous nation. Then the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, oppressed us and placed upon us hard labor. We cried out to God, and God heard our plea … and freed us with a strong arm and awesome power … and brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing in milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-9) 

Why was it necessary for the Israelite living on the land and benefitting from its wealth of produce to be reminded of the “old days,” when things were not so good? After all, wandering, slavery, oppression were no longer part of their lives. They had moved to a much better neighborhood. They were enjoying the fruits of their labor, no longer just laboring for someone else.

The father in Roth’s story and the Israelite who brought the first fruits of the harvest recited stories of the past in order to gain more of an appreciation for what they now enjoyed. The children in the story, even the man’s wife, did not want to hear of the struggle, of the challenges, of the hardships of life in Brooklyn. They could not understand that their father and husband was recalling his past because he was so amazed and so grateful for his present life, and he wanted his family, too, to be appreciative rather than simply believe that they have all this luxury and comfort coming to them. 

Likewise, the Israelite bringing his first fruits as an offering of gratitude might easily have forgotten the past hardships previous generations had endured so that this generation may have so much that their first fruits could be so easily offered up. The intent of this short history beginning with the hardships of the past and leading to the present comfortable life is to instill in each one “an attitude of gratitude.”

As the High Holy Days approach, it is good to reflect back on the years to the times when funds were short, when life was more difficult, when we were just beginning. In so doing, may we come to appreciate all that we have and all that we are. 

Shanah Tovah Umetukah! A good, sweet year to all!