Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 14 October 2016
There are no “good old days”
We begin the new Jewish year with the concluding sections of our Torah, Parashat Ha’azinu, Moses final song. Just as Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – have offered us an opportunity to look back at the past year, so too do Moses final poetic words ask the Israelites to look back at their past.
I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about the importance of recognising how much progress we have made. Even though a YouGov survey carried out at the beginning of the year found that only 4% of Britons thought that the world is getting better with a staggering 65% believing that the world is getting worse, this view of world history simply cannot be backed up by hard facts.
In his recent book “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look forward to the Future”, the Swedish journalist Johan Norberg shows convincingly that “the human race has never been richer, healthier, freer, safer, better-fed or educated.” In 1820, a little under half of the British population lived in what we would now term extreme poverty; this is the kind of abject misery that today you only see in places such as Haiti or Zimbabwe.
Of course, there are still plenty of poor people around the world and even in our neighbourhoods, but humanity is making great strides in eradicating poverty: if it takes you 5 min to read these thoughts, another 500 people will have risen out of poverty.
Enlightenment values have civilised us, too. Norberg borrows from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to show that we are becoming less violent. The past century seems bloodsoaked until you consider that the An Lushan Rebellion in 8th-century China brought about the deaths of 13 million people — 5 per cent of the world’s population in a little more than seven years.
What about terrorism, you might ask. Norberg responds: “More Europeans drown in their own bathtubs, and ten times more die falling down stairs than die at the hands of terrorists. In fact, the risk of being caught up in a war, subjected to a dictatorship or of dying in a natural disaster is smaller than ever. The golden age is now.”
So, if everything points to the fact that we are living in a golden age, why can’t we see it?
Norberg explains that “We’ve evolved to be suspicious and fretful: fear and worry are tools for survival. The hunters and gatherers who survived sudden storms and predators were the ones who had a tendency to scan the horizon for new threats, rather than sit back and enjoy the view. They passed their stress genes on to us.”
Nostalgia, too, is biological: as we get older, it is easy to mistake changes in ourselves for changes in the world. Norberg describes how “when he ask people about their ideal era, the moment in world history when they think it was the most harmonious and happy, they say it was the era they grew up in. They describe a time before everything became confusing and dangerous, the young became rude, or listened to awful music, or stopped reading books in order to just play Pokémon Go.”
So it seems that we are biologically hard-wired to be nostalgic pessimists. Yet our Jewish tradition tries to teach us otherwise.
Moses’s poem in our Parashah is a perfect proof text for this. The poem is a grim indictment of Israel’s failings over the years and a plea for renewed fidelity to God. Should we be looking backward in history to learn for the future? Yes, but not to repeat what our parents have done but rather to learn for the future. In Deut. 32:46, Moses asserts that the hope for Israel’s salvation lies primarily not in the elders of Israel but in its youngest generation. “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day,” he instructs. “Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.”
Judaism from the onset has understood the power and value of hope and optimism for the future; because it can actually be dangerous if we are not able to see the progress that we have made. A society that believes everything is getting worse, will begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. As Jews we understand all too well, how dangerous it can be for minorities in particular when a society decides to try its luck with demagogues who offer simple solutions to make our nations great again.
Judaism teaches us that there are no “good old days.” So instead of nostalgic pessimism, let us look back at the past to see how far we have come. Let us use the energy of our successes to carry us through setbacks and times of pain and sorrow. Let us gain strength from the past year that we may exhaust the full potential of the year ahead so that we will do our part to ensure that progress will continue; for this is the only way that we can bring the messianic age closer.
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