Don’t say, “How is it that times past were better than these?” For it is not wise of you to ask that question. (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 7:10)
Although we won’t be reading this verse for several weeks (when the book of Kohelet/Eccleasiastes is read in synagogues on the Shabbat during Sukkot), it has come to my mind lately in these weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—a time when we should be asking ourselves:
Are we preparing for the New Year? And if we are…Are we preparing by looking backwards or forwards?
A new year means we are all a year older, hopefully a year wiser. For some, a new year brings the hope of dreams finally being achieved and objectives realized—a teenager looking forward to his/her Bar or Bat Mitzvah or getting his/her driver’s license, a senior looking forward to graduating this year, an engaged couple looking forward to their wedding, expectant parents anticipating a new, healthy arrival.
For others, a new year may be a reminder of painful events that took place during the past year: the loss of a loved one, profound disappointments that were experienced, expectations that were not met, trust that was betrayed, dreams that were not fulfilled and opportunities that were squandered–with little hope of “maybe next time”.
For those of us in the autumn or winter of our lives, the new year may spark memories of times past that were full of joy and hope, but now also accentuate the anxiety and sense of loss that characterize what the present—and the future—hold in store. Indeed, if this is the case—why wouldn’t we be tempted to say that “times past were better than these”?
To be sure, sharing memories and our pasts with loved ones and friends or engaging in life review, are important to maintaining our sense of self-identity. Our histories are what make us who and what we are. But while it is important to cherish our memories of the past, the author of Kohelet is cautioning us against comparing the past with the present and the future. Perhaps he means to teach us that every life season has its challenges and rewards, and that no matter in which season we find ourselves, there are blessings to be enjoyed and lessons to be learned, and we are invited to take advantage of them–even in “winter”, when our capacities may be decreasing.
There are many ways to do this, but to get the most out of what life still has in store, we have to let go of comparing the past to the present– to let go of whatever “hold” the past may have on us, in order to better embrace the present and the future. Letting go means “letting G-d”: trusting G-d, as well as trusting ourselves and others.
It is noteworthy that Jewish tradition attributes authorship of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes to King Solomon, who is said to have written the book when he was an old man. Toward the end of his life, when he had “seen and done it all”, when the days of his youth seemed more enjoyable than his later years, he still cautioned against comparing the past to the present. Perhaps he arrived at this observation in part because during his life, he had learned the importance—the necessity—of living with trust. Solomon as a man in his middle years—having acquired some wisdom (he was the wisest in his time!) is also identified as the author of Proverbs—the text in which it is written: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding” (3:5).
When a new year begins, we simultaneously look backwards and forwards. This year, may our pasts not imprison us in the past, but instead prepare, and propel us forward to a fulfilling future.
And on the way there, may we have the requisite trust in G-d and in ourselves to be—everyday— more “present”.