Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” Perhaps that is what is meant by the phrase, “Renew our days as of old. Chadesh Yameinu K’kedem.”
These words come from the penultimate verse of the book of Lamentations and are said each time we return the Torah to the ark. This verse has particular meaning in the month of Elul as we reflect and repent. What are “days of old?” The phrase reflects our human tendency to dwell sentimentally upon the past. The midrash explains that the word “kedem” in Hebrew may be a reference to the ultimate idealization of days of yore, the Garden of Eden.
Interestingly, the same root also means to move forward. In modern Hebrew, the word “Kadima!”is a command akin to “onward!” (and the name of a liberal political party in Israel, no coincidence since it is also the root for “progressive”).
Perhaps this linguistic twist touches upon a certain truth: returning to the past alone does not make for greatness. We do not yearn for bygone days exactly as they were. Instead, we are taught to re-new our days. There is a critical difference. If we only yearn for the way things were we risk moving into the future as if in a rowboat; traveling forward but always looking back. A better way, our tradition teaches, is to return to the best parts of ourselves while looking into a future made new again with joy, vitality and insight.
As we look back to understand and repair the past in this season of return, may we also find the courage to live life forwards.
Rabbi Sarah Mack.