The blessing “SheHeCheyanu.”
In the Haggada containing excerpts from R. Eliezer Berkovits’ writings, Faith and Freedom, the discussion associated with the blessing that concludes the “Kadesh” section of the Seder—B’A’H’ E’M’H’ Shehecheyanu, VeKiymanu, VeHigianu LaZeman HaZeh (…Who has Kept us alive, and Fortified us, in order that we have been able to reach this moment)—is expanded upon by a passage from R. Berkovits’ book Crisis and Faith, Sanhedrin Press, New York, 1976, pp. 151-2.
An emotional “roller coaster.”
R. Berkovits suggests that for Jews, due to their historical experience, there is a continual, ongoing dialectic between the past, that is traditionally associated with sadness, mourning and exile, on the one hand, and the future, representing joy, redemption, and consolation, on the other.
Jewish calendrical examples of these alternating extreme poles include:
a) The Three Weeks, beginning with the communal fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and culminating with the 9th of Av, and Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat immediately following this terrible time, and ushering in the Shiva D’Nechamta, the seven weeks of Haftarot of comfort.
b) The Ten Days of Repentance, reaching a climax on Yom HaKippurim, complemented by Sukkot, a time informed by great happiness and celebration.
c) The work week when we are reminded of the difficulties of everyday life, leading in to Shabbat, representing the essence of the World-to-Come.
And as for d) Pesach, the commemoration of our redemption from Egyptian slavery, R. Berkovits, again drawing upon his very real sense of how the Jews suffered during the years of the Holocaust, writes:
(Jews were called upon to celebrate this holiday) often in the midst of the most abject oppression. (See “Appreciating Kiddush and HaMotzee.”)
(It seems to me that Pesach is the most poignant of R. Berkovits’ examples, in the sense that whereas the other three do not require the individual to simultaneously focus on the two extremes, but rather one always follows the other, Pesach, by noting that it is incumbent upon the Jew to sense freedom, in the spirit of the Mishna in the last chapter of Pesachim: “A person is obligated to view himself as if he has personally left Egypt,” is more challenging. Seeing yourself as having been redeemed while still in the throes of persecution and suffering would be a tall order for anyone!
Furthermore, with Pesach being followed relatively closely by the Sefirat HaOmer mourning period, at least for Ashkenazim, reminding us of the crusades that decimated medieval European Jewry during the spring season, appears to follow a sequence that is opposite that of the Three Weeks, the Ten Days of Repentance, and the work week, with the positive, future-looking occurrence of Pesach being commemorated before past-oriented time of Sefira.)
The present as the meeting place for the powerful emotions arising from the experiences informing past and future.
R. Berkovits contends that the combination of the moods of past and future inform the present and make it livable, regardless of the conditions in which we may find ourselves:
…Past and future, exile and redemption, embracing each other in every present moment. In all the exiles, the Jew has lived in the past and the future more than in the present; they were more important than the present. We have drawn the past from behind and the future from before us and sunk them into the contemporary moment in which we found ourselves in each generation. Thus, living with the past in memory, and with the future in faith, we have saved the present from the domination of time…
According to R. Berkovits’ above-stated sentiments, Jewish history becomes an important mitigating factor in Jews not becoming too “high” or “low” with respect to any situation in which they presently find themselves. The recognition that terrible circumstances can always be improved offers hope to even the most presently downtrodden; but at the same time, people should not be carried away with what they perceive as current “success” since such conditions can also change rapidly and decisively. The contrapuntal nature of life would appear to favor those who remain on a relatively even keel in order to be prepared for the next sea-change that can never be totally anticipated.
Recently listening to a tape of a Purim Shiur delivered by R. J.B. Soloveitchik during the 1970’s, I was taken by his perception of the interplay between past, present, and future. He stated that memory is the manner in which man preserves the past, and using his senses is how he perceives the present. However, he observed, the future can never be foreseen and therefore is the cause of much human anxiety. Since we can never know what will take place over the course of the next year, let alone “during the next five minutes,” modern man is beset by fears and insecurities. It would appear that R. Berkovits would respond that while the specifics can never be known with certainty, a certain modicum of hope, based upon God’s Intercessions with the Jewish people in the past, is appropriate. Of course, whether that is sufficient to offset the deep angst that man senses by not knowing what lies “around the corner” might be a function of personality or psychological verity.
I think that another factor that enters into this difference of opinion between R.’s Berkovits and Soloveitchik concerns whether we place our emphasis upon the future of the Jewish people, or the Jewish individual. While there are guarantees that “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker” (God will not Misrepresent any Promises that He may have Made), the Promises were to the nation as a whole, and not to individual members of that nation. An abject example of such a dichotomy is on Rosh HaShana, when we speak about the Books of Life and Death being open so that individuals can be inscribed regarding the year to come, we recite the liturgical poem “UneTaneh Tokef” where the lines that can do little other than deeply frighten the reader when he dutifully says, “Who will live and who will die,” and we attempt to demonstrate by invoking the verses of Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot, that we accept God’s Rulership over us and the world, are balanced with wearing Yom Tov clothing, eating festive meals, and gathering together as families. We celebrate as a people God’s Commitment to us; yet as individuals we are full of trepidation regarding the upcoming year.
Which approach to time would you advocate—that of R. Berkovits, the one propounded by the Rav, both, or other conceptions? The Beracha “SheHecheyanu,” which I believe to be profoundly existential, raises these same issues again and again.