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Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Living in the Good Old Days is a Cop-Out

Daf Yomi Sotah 49

Today we conclude Tractate Sotah.  The tractate closes with a strange exchange about humility and fear of sin.  The Mishnah teaches that when Rebbe died, humility and fear of sin disappeared.  Rav Yosef replies to the teacher, “Don’t teach that humility is gone, for I am here,” and Rav Nachman says to the teacher, “Don’t teach that fear of sin is gone, for I am here.”

And with that the tractate ends, leaving us completely baffled.  Did Rebbe’s passing see the end of these traits or not?  And how could these rabbis have the arrogance to boast that they embodied humility and fear of sin?  Isn’t it contradictory to publicly declare one’s humility?!  And  if you do fear sin, shouldn’t you keep that to yourself?! 

In the curses of the Book of Devarim, the Torah warns, “In the morning, you shall say, ‘if only it were night,’ and in the night, you shall say, ‘if only it were morning;’ from the fear of your hearts.”
Mishnah: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Rabbi Yehoshua testified that from the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, there was no day that was not cursed.
Rava said: The meaning of the verse in Devarim is that every day’s curse is worse than the previous day’s.  Which morning does the verse refer to?  If you say it refers to tomorrow morning, who knows what will be?  Rather, the verse refers to this morning that already was.
Rashi explains: The verse means that we will yearn for the previous day’s woes which paled in comparison to those of today. 

Many people look nostalgically to the past, reminiscing about how good things were ‘back in the day.’   They long for the days when life was so pure, simple, and straightforward.   But was life really that simple in the past?  The past had its own set of problems, issues, and challenges!

Rava teaches that even if life wasn’t really that simple way back when, the reason we yearn for those days is that we now realize how good we had it in days gone past.  Back then life seemed tough, but compared to nowadays, it was a walk in the park.  That’s the meaning of the ‘good old days.’  Nobody really believes that life was ever perfect in the past, but compared to the problems we see today, life was, in many ways, much simpler.

Let me share a little secret with you.  We are living in the good old days.  There will come a day in the future when we will look back to the times we are living in today and yearn for the goodness of our present-day lives.  The secret to life is, instead of looking backwards, nostalgically longing for times in the past that are long gone, we should be very grateful for the times we live in today, for as the Gemara says, “tomorrow morning, who knows what will be?”  Today is awesome compared to what tomorrow might bring!  These are the good old days, so best enjoy them while they are here!

The problem with dwelling on ‘the good old days’ of yesteryear is not so much the joy you get from reminiscing about the way life once was – there’s nothing wrong with sustaining fond memories.  The problem is the shirking of responsibility that accompanies living in the past.  All too often today we hear people complain about the lack of leadership in our community.  ‘All of our gedolim (great leaders) are gone!’ they wail.

When Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman heard the teacher moaning over the lack of leadership in their time, they stood up and responded:  ‘Don’t say humility is dead.  I am here.  Don’t say fear of sin is dead.  I am here.’  They weren’t saying it out of arrogance; they were stepping up to the plate of leadership. 

Looking to the past and deciding that there’s no leadership today is a cop-out.  Are we on the same level as our gedolim of yesteryear?  Perhaps not.  But that’s no excuse to sit around in despair.  On the contrary, if we don’t step up, it becomes a free-for-all where anything goes – if there’s no leadership today, then can we blame the average person for their behaviour?  After all, there was no one to show the way!  Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman wouldn’t accept that.  Their message was: if people believe humility is dead, then they will be arrogant, if people believe fear of sin is dead, they will sin.  We’re not going to let that happen in our times.

Today might not be the same as yesterday, but that is no excuse to shirk your responsibility to step up and lead.   Whether the Almighty is calling you to lead your community or your family, you are the gadol of today!  How many times have I walked into someone’s home and proudly shown the beautiful picture of their zayda (grandfather) on the wall – an ehrliche yid mit a lange bord (a sincere Jew with a long beard)?  Beard or no beard, will your einiklach (grandchildren) be able to point with the same pride to your picture on the wall? 

Living in the past is a cop-out.  Today, we are living in the good old days of the future.  May you accept the mantle of leadership that today’s generation needs!  

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