Living with the Past

God tells Lot (Abraham’s nephew), and Lot’s family, not to look back upon the ruinous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, as they escape from these decadent and vile places to a better life elsewhere. But alas, Lot’s wife fails to adhere to the divine instruction not to completely look back. Lot’s wife fully turns around 180 degrees to face the massive destruction behind her. She is gripped by the destructive desire to become utterly transfixed and absorbed by the devastation, and as a result – she tragically perishes.

What is the spiritual message of this enigmatic story? I believe this story is in the Torah, in order to convey to us the gist of the Jewish attitude towards living with our past. Both our national collective past, and our personal individual past. As a nation, we underwent genocide less than eight decades ago. We live with this horrific past. We commemorate the Holocaust, we learn about it, we educate our children about it, we revere our survivors, and we do our best to prevent more recurrences of such atrocities for us as Jews, or for any other group belonging to the human family.

We live with this past, but we don’t live in this past, and that’s a crucial difference. The transmission of Judaism from one generation to the next generation, is largely contingent upon the fulfillment of the pivotal mitzvah of “Zachor” – “Remember.” We remember the miraculous and the seemingly mundane, we remember the horrendous occurrences of the past, but we also remember the uplifting and the sublime.

The same applies to our personal individual lives as well. We remember loved ones who were brutally and abruptly taken from us, at times prematurely, while they were still enjoying the vibrancy of youth. We remember the trauma of immigration, and its pervasive wounds of alienation and solitude. We remember relationships which failed to endure. We live with the past, in order to learn from it, cherish it, and honor those who lived through it. But if we covet life, we must not allow ourselves to be completely shackled and chained to our past.

In our story this Shabbat, Lot’s wife failed to apprehend this subtle and crucial difference between living with the past, and living in the past. She remained existentially handcuffed to the traumas of yesterday, and failed to empower herself to move on with her life today. If we truly covet life and joy, then we must not repeat her mistake. We have to move on beyond our lives in Berlin and Teheran before 1933 and 1979 respectively, before the calamities which brought us to these promised shores. We have to carry with us the pain of past relationships and traumas. We cannot deny and bury the past, but nor are we to succumb to the horrific and self-destructive temptation to become imprisoned by the past. We remember, but we also continue and move on, and say a resounding yes to life. We choose life. Live with your past, learn from it, but do not re-live it. You deserve so much more than that, and so does your family and all those around you, who love you so very much.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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