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 We currently find ourselves at the beginning of the month of January, which is the first month of the secular year. January derives its name from the pagan god Janus, who was given two faces, one looking in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. It became the symbol of the past and the future, the old year and the new one, of looking back and looking ahead at the same time.

This symbolism was adopted by some of the emperors of Europe – notably, the Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Romamovs of the Russian Empire among others. They employed two headed eagles facing in opposite directions to indicate their seemingly great past and hopefully their even greater future.
In fact one could say that all of human life is based on this trait of looking back and looking ahead at one and the same time. The problem always arises as to the emphasis given to looking back or to looking ahead. Without being able to look back, individuals and nations lack the experience and background in dealing with current events. However, without looking ahead one becomes a captive of the past and runs the risk of being completely irrelevant to the actual world and its constant change.
This problem, of a proper balance between the past and the future, is especially acute in current Jewish society – particularly in the growing section of Jewish society dedicated to observance of Torah commandments and values. Much of this world lives almost solely in the past while another substantial section of our Jewish society looks only to the future and has little knowledge or concern for our past.
One of the many adverse effects of the Holocaust in the Orthodox Jewish world has been the construction of an Eastern European past that is based on romantic fantasy and invention. And it is to this imagined and unrealistic past that the current problems and issues of our society are compared to and measured.
It is of little wonder that a great deal of dysfunction, disharmony and radically opposing views and contentious personalities dominate the scene. Those that worry about the future, whether of individuals, families, the Jewish state, or the Jewish people as a whole, are oftentimes accused of lacking faith. Since the future is inscrutable, we need not deal with it. God will somehow help us then as He has in the past.
We immerse ourselves in the past... unfortunately in a past that never was. This type of mindset affects all of our educational systems. It creates unreasonable demands upon children and students and imposes an education on the masses meant for the elite and the exceptional. It imagines that somehow everyone in Europe before the war that destroyed Jewish life there attended yeshiva, studied Talmud and was meticulously observant of all of the minutiae of Jewish law.
In making the exceptional the norm, which it never was in the past, many problems that now exist in our current society are not only unsolved but in fact are exacerbated. Being fixated on the past, especially on an imaginary past, carries dangers with it.
In a fit of rabbinic exegesis, I would suggest the following. We have just completed reading the book of Bereshith in our Shabbat morning services. At the conclusion of this holy book, our father Jacob blesses his two grandchildren, the sons of Joseph, Menashe and Efrayim. He places his right hand on the head of Efrayim and in his blessing he mentions Efrayim first before Menashe.
By the very nature of the linguistic derivatives of their names, Efrayim represents the future growth of the Jewish people in Egypt and thereafter. Menashe represents the past with all of the problems, disappointments and afflictions that the house of Jacob suffered in the land of Canaan. Apparently Jacob wishes us to emphasize the future while at the same time not allowing us to forget the real past that we have experienced and overcome.
The Jewish people are big on memorials. We never let go of our past and in fact are constantly reinventing it to fit current political and religious correctness. That is not always a negative thing. But our main emphasis should be on constructing our future. We should be imagining what the Jewish world and the State of Israel will look like a century after us and spend less time on reconstructing what we think the Jewish world looked like a century before us.
Knowing our history is essential for vital Jewish life to continue. Nevertheless falling into the trap of being academics of the past and thus disregarding the construction of our future is, in my opinion, futile and dangerous. The trick is to look forwards and backwards – especially forwards - at the same time, without injuring our necks and vision.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

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