The Limits of Nostalgia: My 2019 Yom Kippur sermon

As I must do from time to time, I wish to assure all of you that even though there will be baseball content over the next few minutes, this sermon is not about baseball. But I’m confident we can agree that sometimes we need to illustrate a point by referencing something that is close to home for us.

In this case, as many of you know, I used to have a large baseball card collection. At its peak, I estimate that I had more than 16,000 cards, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. I have given most of these cards away in recent years, but there’s no denying that they were a big part of my childhood. Many hours were spent sorting the cards alphabetically by the players’ last names, then by the brand of card, then by the year the card was made. There was a time when I could quote the basic statistics of these players, having read through the backs of most of those cards. As you have no doubt concluded, I had no life. But I did have many moments of joy.

Today, baseball cards are far sleeker, glossier, and pricier than ever. But curiously, there has been some effort to recapture the relative innocence of the earlier eras of card collection — back when cards were sorted, traded, flippe, and placed in the spokes of bicycle tires, not hidden behind hard plastic shells and preserved for investment. One such attempt comes from the industry’s leading manufacturer, Topps, which publishes the Heritage series. These cards depict contemporary ballplayers, looking very much like their modern selves, but with the background designs of actual Topps cards from the 1970s and 80s.

Surely, nostalgic gimmicks like this are plentiful these days. Look no further than our synagogue; the theme of this year’s High Holidays, We Are The World, was inspired by 1980s nostalgia. But I wish to talk today about the limits of nostalgia, and how an over-reliance on a certain kind of nostalgia can prevent us from moving forward both personally and as a society.

But first, another word about the Topps Heritage cards, from another voice — sportswriter extraordinaire Joe Posnanski. He writes:

The [actual] 1970 cards feel different than the new ones because they weren’t nostalgic then. Now, sure. But then? They were real baseball cards with real players for real kid. Yes, the players did all the corny poses, but not for sentimental reasons. They did the poses because THAT’S WHAT BASEBALL PLAYERS DID ON BASEBALL CARDS. There was no irony in those cards. They didn’t pose ironically. They didn’t take the photos in front of terrible backgrounds ironically. They didn’t come up with the 1970s design ironically. It was real. Sometimes, the players were a little bit out of focus. Often they were a touch off-center. That was the deal. It was the best they could do.
“You can’t recreate that. You can imitate it, yes, but that’s not the same thing. The new Topps Heritage cards are made by a lot of people who are in on the joke. That’s OK. It’s fun. But it isn’t nostalgic. It’s like watching your kids have 1980s parties. You laugh. But you are not transported. And it always ends up being disappointing. …
“Nostalgia [like this] isn’t for THINGS. It’s for youth. You hear that song, you catch that television show, you see a photo and, for an instant, it all feels close enough to touch. But you find too quickly that it isn’t. … Nostalgia is a fleeting feeling, a brush against a stranger in a train station, a dream you barely remember and then lose in the morning glow. You cannot go back.

Posnanski makes a key distinction between celebrating the past and attempting to bring it back to life. Make no mistake: celebrating our history — especially history that we ourselves experienced — can be incredibly fun. We love to wax poetically about days gone by that seemed simpler, and more sensible. We take stock of our modern problems and remember a time when these troubles didn’t exist, and often conclude that the old days must have been better. But the danger of that is, when we reach that conclusion, we neglect to remember the other problems of yesteryear.  Instead, we would rather romanticize the past than finding new solutions for modern problems.

Indeed, there is a stark, and important, difference between honoring the past and being enslaved to the past. And perhaps no book of the Bible illustrates this better than the book of Jonah, which we will read at our Minha services this afternoon. As I have mentioned in previous years on Yom Kippur, the book of Jonah is much more than a story of a man who is swallowed, and then regurgitated by, a giant fish. He is an all-too-human example of someone who questions his life purpose, in no small part because he is imprisoned by the way things used to be — and, in his mind, the way things ought to be.

As many of us can recall from the first time we learned about it, Jonah first appears in his eponymous book when God commands him to warn the citizens of Nineveh of their imminent destruction. What a lot of us never learned is that Jonah appears, albeit briefly, in a different book of the Bible as well. He is mentioned in the second book of Kings, chapter 14 verse 25, and is referred to as God’s servant. The reason why this is important is that Jonah is not some random person God reaches out to when Nineveh is about to be destroyed; instead, Jonah has already served God in the role of a prophet, which makes his act of rebellion even more notable.

Jonah’s allegiance to God is further evident in the first chapter of the book, in which he hides on a boat, and is approached by his fellow passengers when a brutal storm arrives. These passengers rightly wonder whether a deity is causing the storm, and when Jonah realizes he’s being questioned about the storm’s origins, he doesn’t try to hide that it is God who is punishing him for his actions. His honesty in this scene shows that he acknowledges God’s supremacy and that he worships God.

In his philosophical treatise entitled Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik commented on the significance of this interaction: “It is good for a Jew when he cannot ignore his Jewishness and is obliged to ‎perpetually ‎answer the questions ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What is your occupation?’, ‎even when ‎extraordinary fear grips him and he does not have the strength or fortitude to answer ‎with true ‎pride, ‘I am a Jew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven’. The unrelenting ‎question ‎of, ‘Who are you?’ ties [Jonah] to the Jewish people.‎”

Jonah’s attachment to God does not cease after he is cast into the sea and is swallowed by the large fish. As he begs God to save his life, he says at one point, “I thought I was driven away out of Your sight: Would I ever gaze again upon Your holy Temple?” Now, you could argue that he says this just to curry favor with God, but based on what we already know, it’s fair to believe that Jonah’s nostalgia for his prior days as a prophet is genuine, and not mere pandering.

Understanding the story in this way helps us to make sense of Jonah’s behavior at the end of the book. Jonah is expelled from the fish’s belly and finally arrives in Nineveh to warn its residents of its impending doom, and when they repent, God forgives them and cancels their punishment. We next see Jonah alone on a hill, overlooking the city, feeling sorry for himself. Why? He explains to God that there was no point for him to go to Nineveh if God had just planned to forgive its residents all along. Jonah feels that, as a prophet, his usefulness has disappeared.

In this moment, Jonah is pining for the good old days, when he felt like an important instrument of God’s sovereignty on Earth. Now, he feels like a has-been, someone whose skills are superfluous in a new age. The irony of this is that Jonah is, unlike most Israelite prophets, incredibly successful. After he is cast into the sea at the beginning of the book, the other passengers on the boat give offerings to God for stopping the storm, and find new meaning in their lives. And Jonah’s eventual arrival in Nineveh allows an entire community to get a new lease on life. Most other prophets in the Hebrew Bible lament the people ignoring their eloquent and heartfelt words; Jonah, meanwhile, gets immediate obedience after doing and saying very little. It makes you wonder whether Jonah would have been happier if Nineveh had ignored his warnings and continued their sinful ways.

Jonah’s sadness at the end of the book illustrates the limits of nostalgia. He yearns for times that he remembers as being simpler, times when he understood his place in the world. Indeed, the world has changed around him, and it’s a little befuddling. Yet rather than trying to connect with new realities, he resorts to the past, a time that just made more sense to him. 

Jonah’s struggle reflects our own struggle as a society. It is human nature to attach ourselves to the past and to believe that anything new can’t possibly be as good as what came before it. A recent study by fivethirtyeight.com noted this about our favorite music. The survey revealed that most people’s musical tastes crystallize by their early 30s; meaning, any songs that come out from one’s mid-30s or later is deemed to be inferior. You see this on YouTube comments (which, I must say, you should only read at your own risk). A video for a song published in, say, 1997, inevitably is accompanied by comments like, “they don’t make music like they used to,” and “I’d rather listen to this than most of the junk on the radio.” I’m used to hearing that from people in my general age range; what’s amusing is when I hear similar comments about songs that came out five years ago. And of course, the music I listened to while growing up often was panned by people of my parents’ generation.

You see, everyone has a different point of view of when life was better, whether we’re talking about baseball cards, popular music, or, in Jonah’s case, prophecy. It’s so easy to think that the times in which we grew up were the golden years, and to conclude that modern times only tarnishes them. But as Joe Posnanski reminds us, you can’t recreate the past — you can’t go back. The most we can do is pay homage to the best of what came before us and then move forward with the confidence that our accumulated wisdom will guide us safely into the future. In other words, we must honor the past, but we must not be enslaved by it.

Today, on Yom Kippur, when we are asked to grapple with our past deeds and misdeeds, let us take this message to heart. Let us remember that while nostalgia can bring a smile to our faces, it cannot bring those times back to life. That goes for both the good moments and the ones we’d rather forget. The great thing about Yom Kippur is that there always is a chance for renewal, to know that while the good moments of the past can’t fully return, neither can the bad moments. The times before may have been great, but we have the power to make them better.

So as we make our way to the Yizkor service, when we remember loved ones who have helped us along the way, let us give them their proper due, knowing that we will be blessed by many good days ahead. Let us honor the past, but not be enslaved by it.