Turning the past into the future
This week’s Torah portion is best known for the tragedy that strikes Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Apparently overcome by the ecstasy of serving in the tabernacle, they bring a strange offering and they themselves are consumed by fire. The tragedy takes place in the middle of this week’s reading. But in the eyes of the Rabbis the impending tragedy is foretold right at the outside, by the very first word “Vayehi” – “And it came to pass”.
The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 10b, Or Hachayim 9:1) notes that the word “Vayehi” (‘And it came to pass’), almost always appears in the Bible as a prelude to trouble and disaster. By contrast, the word “Vehaya” (‘And it will be’), invariably introduces of period of hope and prosperity.
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook suggests this strange phenomenon can be explained by an unusual grammatical rule. Both the words “Vayehi” and “Vehaya” use an unusual Hebrew conjunction called the vav hahipuch – a prefix which changes verbs from the past tense into the future, and verbs from the future into the past. Thus the word “yehi” – means ‘it will come to pass’, but “Vayehi” means ‘and it came to pass’ – in the past. Conversely, the word ‘haya’ means ‘it was’, but “Vehaya” means ‘it will be’, in the future.
Suggests Kook, in this obscure grammatical rule lies a clue as to the Jewish attitude to time and tradition. Our aim must be to take the past, our heritage and tradition, and to turn them into a living future. When we do that, it is a sure indication that the future is promising. But when we do the reverse, and bury our hopes for the future under the rubble of the past, then surely tragedy will follow.
One striking example of the approach of “Vehaya” is the Seder night ceremony. This dramatic reenactment of an event in ancient history seems, on the face of it, to be an example of turning the present into the past. But in fact the Seder night is forward looking. We reach back into our history to remind ourselves that we are actually still on a journey forwards – and the climax of the recreation is not the past, but the future: Next year in Jerusalem!
Another model of “vehaya” is the State of Israel itself, which seeks to take 3000 years of tradition, of hope and longing for a homeland, and to use this as a foundation for building a living future. As reflected in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. …They made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
In others’ words
“The Past: our cradle, not our prison; there is danger as well as appeal in its glamour. The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.”
On a lighter note
Moshe is surprised to find his friend Chaim sitting at the gate of the Shtetl. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been hired to sit here and be the first person to greet the Messiah when he arrives” answers Chaim.
“And how much are they paying you?” asks Moshe.
“One ruble a week”
“So little! Why would you take such a low-paying job?”
“Yes, the pay is low”, answers Chaim. ‘But it’s a steady job!”