According to Kohelet: “A good name is better than precious oil, and the day of death than the day of birth” (7:1). James Kugel, in his book The Art of Biblical Poetry, explains that this verse must be read according to its counterpart in (10:1), “dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor.” By reading these two verses together we can understand the meaning of the first half of the verse and the connection between its two parts. An example of this is that it takes only one fly to ruin a bottle of oil and it takes only one bad incident to ruin a person’s reputation or good name. A newborn has the potential to be good or bad, but one bad choice or action can ruin things forever. If one’s reputation remains intact at the day of death that reputation remains secured.
We just recently finished Pesach, a testament to the fact that that the formative experience of the Jewish people happened in the spring, upon the birth of our nation. In commemorating this event as the core of our identity through numerous festivals and mitzvot, it seems we are in some ways defying Kohelet’s observation. But the way we conduct our calendar and our celebrations we seem much more excited about new beginnings and the potential they hold than with the satisfaction that comes with having seen a task or event through to the end. There is no ancient festival that explicitly commemorates the entrance of the Jewish people into the land of Israel, ostensibly the goal of the Exodus in the first place.
Why the hesitation? Why do we tend to focus our energies on the beginnings and not the ends?
The answer to this question is stated most powerfully in Deuteronomy 7. Moses is recounting the experience of the Jews in the desert, from their having been fed manna, to their entrance into a land flowing with milk and honey. The land is a good land, there will be plenty of water and bread and fruits and even precious metals (vs. 7-9).
However, it is at this moment – with all its abundance and goodness – that the people, who should be praising God for all of their good fortune instead, say: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” (vs. 10) They have forgotten where it came from.
This astute observation on human nature explains why we as Jews tend to celebrate the beginnings and shy away from the ends. Beginnings are scary, but hold a lot of potential. Whether it be a wedding or Passover we get together at the “day of birth” to try to set the right path, recognizing the many challenges that lie ahead and the enormous potential for greatness.
In contrast, Yom Ha’atzmaut is in some ways the “day of death” described by Kohelet. We are celebrating a victory, an accomplishment, and we have a lot to look back at and be proud of. While this may be a bit of an odd bird in the Jewish tradition, it has become an important part of our religious experience, to take time to celebrate our accomplishments, not only the potential but its realization.
However, here too we must remember the danger of Deuteronomy 7; once everything looks finished, once we are successful, we can easily say, “we did this.” This attitude is one of self-righteous complacency that can so easily accompany success. And when we have this feeling, we lose the potential to grow. We feel satisfied with where we are and with our own ability to make it happen. We no longer question and we no longer need to enlist the help of others. This is the greatest danger of success.
Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 3 describes an oath taken by a baby in utero right when it is about to enter the world: “Be righteous and do not be wicked, and even if the entire world thinks you are righteous, always see yourself as if you are wicked.”
At the moment when we are most sure that we are right and good, we are at the highest risk of complacency and stagnation. We must always be critical and always be challenged if we are to lead dynamic change in the world and in ourselves.