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Never Going Back Again

09/01/2022 10:05:54 AM


A dear friend of mine wants to go back to his pre-Covid self. He feels he has lost a part of himself, the part that socialized easily and fluently, charming new friends without effort. “How can I go back to that me?” he asked me in sadness, “Something of me has been lost”. He is not alone. I imagine that each of us has been, at one time or another, caught in such a riptide of wanting to go back, searching for a past situation or a past self that we long for, in need of a richness we once had, and returning to it over and over again in our minds. 

The Israelites were notorious for this throughout the exodus, grumbling against Moses that they missed their food, their homes, even their lives as slaves in Egypt. Though it may have been objectively worse, there is a comfort in what once was. And surprisingly it isn’t only hardship that tempts us to try and go backward. In our parsha we learn that even when the people  flourish in the land of Israel, crowning their own sovereign and living with such prosperity that the king must be warned against amassing too much wealth, they are still explicitly forbidden from going back to Egypt. The kingdom might be thriving, with money to seek riches like a herd of horses imported from Egypt, but in Shoftim we read: “לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד”, “You must not return back that way again” (Deuteronomy 17:16); they should not go back, even from a place of strength. 

The wording of the verse is insistent, literally translated as something like, “you must not again go back this way again”. Not only is Egypt the past, seeking it only causing regression and harm, but also this isn’t the first time you’ve tried to go back. The wording here implies you’ve tried time and time again. There is a fruitless pattern here, one God warns against getting stuck in.

If, even when we are kings of our own castles, blessed with plenty, we fixate on wanting more, on wanting the past, on what is elsewhere, perhaps we can learn from the rules of kingship set forth in Parshat Shoftim, which teach a king how to best lead and to best serve, how we might find ourselves again. What can we learn from these teachings to help us thrive as we are? When something in you has been lost, if you cannot keep going back for it, what can you do?

There is an alternative to iterative longing. We are taught that a king must be set from among his brothers, not have too many riches, horses, or commitments, study daily, and never look down on his fellow, “לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו” (Deut. 17:20), literally: never exalt his heart up over his kin. So dont לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד, lashuv baderekh hazeh od, go back that way again. Instead: put yourself among your people, connect back with your community. Don’t get distracted by amassing a wealth of things, excess will not help you. Commit to learning something every day. You don’t need to read your way through the entire Talmud, but find a practice of reading and learning to focus you and to give you meaning. And, finally, “don’t exalt your own heart from your kin”. Don’t be a snob, or, more broadly, don’t separate yourself from others. Because when we look at our lives and say “I am missing something” and “I want to go back to me”, we remove ourselves from those currently around us. Instead of looking at everyone else, hearing them, connecting with them, we are longing for something lost and those who aren't there. Our moments of greatest loneliness and need can be healed by paying attention to those around us — listening, giving, meeting heart to heart.

Not surprisingly, our parsha aligns beautifully with the season. In Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah that we are in now, we spend a lot of time reflecting on kings and kingship. We say that the “king is in the field” during this month, meaning that our divine sovereign has come to be in the world. The rabbis teach that the shofar, blown every morning in Elul, is the sound of God’s coronation. In this way, every day, hearing the shofar, we choose to make God our king, we coronate God again and again. May this sound be for you a reminder of God's torah on sovereignty, of your choice not to return to Egypt, not to be lost going backward over and over again, but to seek all that makes a king thrive — connection, humility, study, and caring for one another. Shabbat shalom!

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784