One of the most profound moments in Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell appears toward the end of the novel when Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist and heroine of the story realizes that Ashley, her lifetime love interest has a different approach to life. Whereas she is forward thinking, living in the present and looking toward the future, Ashley is stuck in the past, yearning for a South that once was but in the aftermath of the Civil War is no more. Powerfully she observes:
I was right when I said I’d never look back. It hurts too much, it drags at your heart till you can’t ever do anything else except look back.
Scarlett’s insight is important. We can study our past. We can learn from it. We can be entertained and inspired. It can give us models to emulate and follies to avoid. But we cannot long for it.
Nostalgia is often thought of as a love for the past, but in fact, it is much more insidious. It is the amalgam of two Greek words, nostos, which means going home, and algos, which means pain. Like Scarlett observed, there is always pain in going home. Turning backwards is itself a traumatic process.
Our Rabbis understood this well. And like Mitchell, they put this wisdom into the mouths of heroines.
In this week’s Torah portion, we meet five extraordinary women known as the daughters of Zelophehad. They know they are the sole heirs of their father but also know that they live in a world where it is impossible for a woman to inherit land or property. They approach Moses with this problem and get the law changed for future generations. Starting with them, women will now be able to inherit land when there are no male heirs.
However, in examining their story, our Rabbis pick up on something interesting in their speech and they contrast it with another episode of audacious request that appears earlier in the Torah. As we will see, both stories turn on the use of one word.
Years before, God had decreed that the people would wander in the desert for forty years because the people lacked trust in God. This would allow the older generation to die off and a new, more faithful one to arise. Yet, when God announced this decision, the people refused to accept the decree. They complained that they should not be made to wander. However, as part of their grievance, rather than looking toward the land they would never see, they instead project their hopes backwards. They cry:
Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:2-4)
Reflecting on this display in the Midrash, Rabbi Nathan explained, “The strength of women is finer than the strength of men” (Sifrei 117). He draws this conclusion by seeing how each group uses the word natan meaning “to give” in their respective stories. For these men, the gift they sought was a re-created past. Nitnah Rosh, they said, choose for use a leader to take us backward.
The daughters however, wanted the gift of the future. Tenah lanu, give us a holding, they said, among our father’s kinsman (Numbers 27:4). They knew that they were destined to end up in the land of Israel. They hoped to walk to their estate facing forward, ready to receive whatever might come their way.
Nostalgia always involves pain. It is possible to yearn for the past, but one can never hope for it. Hope is reserved for what will be, that bright light shining forth, guiding our way into tomorrow.
Our Rabbis gives the daughters of Zelophehad the distinctions of wisdom and virtue (Bava Batra 119b). Perhaps they have something to teach us about how we should orient ourselves between history and eternity.