Heart of the Matter

Heart of the Matter photo 2

A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

Redemption, renewal, reunion

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It seems fitting that my 40th high school reunion (New Trier East, 1971) will take place during the approach of the Days of Awe, in the season of renewal and redemption. Lord knows a little renewal is in order. And who can argue with redemption?

To be redeemed, as has happened every decade during reunions past, is that unique brand of bonding that marks relationships formed in childhood, even if those relationships exist more as memories than as living, dynamic processes. Also to be redeemed is that sense of place that comes from being reminded that you have a history, that your childhood was not some misty dream, and that there are other souls who recall who you were, just as you recall them. To have lived during a time and inhabited a place, long ago if not far away, and to taste periodically of its vintage and of its vestige, is the essence of renewal. For it is the old that is renewed, not the new.

Every 10 years during reunion, I wind up, at the end of the evening, sitting around a table with the kids from the neighborhood where I grew up (Winnetka of all places). Some of them were close friends; others simply acquaintances. Most of them I see only during reunion time. No mind; the thread of the past entangles us, if only for that brief but special hour, in a knot that nothing can untie. We are each others' evidence that indeed we had a youth, that we rode tricycles, that we scraped knees and cried, that our parents called us home to dinner from endless summer evenings, that the smell of burning leaves in autumn burned our nostrils, and burned into our souls a permanent nostalgia for all that is ephemeral, for all that is lost. 

I think of the classmates listed as deceased, and look forward to resurrecting their memory, too, with friends with whom I’ll wistfully mourn them. Some of them I recall were lovely girls who I secretly admired, even dared to flirt with. It grieves me that they died too young, and now I can't tell them that they touched my heart.

This reunion, like the others, will come and go in the blink of an eye. It will be a welcome snapshot of who we are, a redemption of who we were, and a renewal, perhaps of friendships, but most certainly of the message, that we should strive to live well, and pray to have our days renewed, as of old.

A message for Tisha B’Av

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The redemptive message of Tisha B'av, which we commemorate next week, must be ferreted from a thicket of woe. And even then, when we find the flower amid the thistle, relief is tempered by a renewed awareness not only of hope, but also of hope’s loss, a permanent fixture, so it seems, in the human condition.

Commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE, the day, marked by its dirges and the chanting of the Scroll of Lamentations, has come to represent Jewish dislocation and destruction throughout history. But therein lies the paradox: had devastation and exile been one-time events in Jewish history, there would be no Jewish history. That destruction recurs inherently signifies the recurrence of renewal and rebirth. Defeat never is a permanent condition, nor is restoration. As in the seasons of nature, encoded within each is the potential of the other. Both are part of some grand design, a wheel of destiny to which our shoulders, as Jews, are permanently pressed.

As the grand cycle of poems comprising Lamentations implores, as individuals and as a people we are to look within ourselves, in our actions, in our relationships, to ask questions about our fidelity to principles, to determine our role in the cycle. The Jewish people, who throughout history have ascended to glory and descended to the pit, have much to reflect on as we contemplate, once again the strange cycle, at once ominous and exhilarating, that drives our history forward.

Where are we now in this cycle? Weren’t the 19th and 20th centuries tumultuous enough? How alarmed should we be that the eloquent message of the 5th BCE should resonate with such pain and passion today, in the 21st century?

Ours is not to see the future; even in Lamentations prophecy came in for its share of skepticism and critique. Ours is but to build, to do what we believe is right, and, in the words of the Prophet Micah, "to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Creator."