DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY
Rabbi David Walk
Actually, I love history. From an early age (as I grow older, I'm never sure what that phrase means any more, but here it means around the fifth grade or about eleven years old), I liked history. I think that I liked the stories. Stories which were true seemed much cooler than made up stuff. There was also this feeling that if someone real did something, then, maybe, so could I. As I've aged (more like a cheese than a wine), my thinking has shifted to more philosophic ponderings about history. Like Michael Crichton's quote, 'If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are like a leaf that doesn't know that it's part of a tree,' or Theodore Roosevelt's, 'The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.' And we'll ignore those curmudgeons like Henry Ford who famously said, 'History is more or less bunk,' but he was an anti-Semite, too. History is more than sophisticated entertainment; it's important to a meaningful life. I think that my interest in history enhanced my involvement in Judaism. Our people's improbable history influenced my desire to be more observant. After all, our stubborn refusal to vanish into the mists of time seemed to support my belief that God either had a sacred plan for us or a perverse sense of humor. In any case, many Jewish observances demand the study of our long and complex history from our Tisha B'av practices to the reading of Megillat Esther.
But there's more to it. Judaism has a sophisticated approach to history, which is embedded in the very fabric of our existence as a people. The most obvious example of this is, of course, the Haggadah. Towards the end of Magid, or the retelling of the saga portion of our Seder, we declare, 'In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8).' Somehow, we project ourselves back in time to have participated in that awesome event. And we go on to proclaim that God, 'redeemed not only our fathers from Egypt, but He redeemed also us with them, as it is said: It was us that He brought out from there, so that He might bring us to give us the land that He swore to our fathers (Deuteronomy 6:23).' That verse was said to the children of those who departed from Egypt after forty years in the wilderness. This process of projecting ourselves into historical events so that we can claim personal involvement, begins in this week's Torah reading.
The source for this phenomenon is found in the words of encouragement God delivers to Ya'akov before he descends to Egypt. Ya'akov greatly desires to go to Egypt to see his beloved Yosef one more time before he dies, but, as often happened in his eventful life, he is afraid. God reassures him by stating, 'I will go down with you into Egypt, and I will also, most assuredly, bring you up again (Genesis 46:4).' Even though the verse could be referring to the earthly remains of Ya'akov being returned for interment in Chevron, the context refers to the Jewish nation becoming great and eventually returning to possess the land of Israel. In other words, Ya'akov is participating in an event which won't happen until centuries after his death. Cool!
Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (the Rav, 1903-1993) explains this phenomenon: History as a human event unfolds itself in time. Yet, the experience of it is interwoven with a unique paradox. On the one hand, time experience asserts itself in the fleeting, vanishing change of events…Yet there is an experience of closeness in historical time. Instead of being a straight line extending in two opposite directions, time presents itself as a three-dimensional magnitude-past, present and future-that envelops the historical consciousness…To live historically means to live through all the phases of history, both past and future…A historical community extends into both the past and the future. Its membership includes the living, the dead, and the not yet born…Both the dawn of history and 'the end of days' constitute for us historical realities (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p.164).
This idea first appears in our parsha. When Avraham was informed of the enslavement and redemption from a foreign land, he was told that his progeny would be involved. Here Ya'akov is apprised of the fact that he himself would participate in this momentous serious of events. How come Ya'akov's involvement is more intimate than Avraham's? I think that this is true because all of Ya'akov's offspring are involved in these future covenantal events, as opposed to Avraham who also spawned Yishmael and Esav, who are not involved in this destiny. My ancestors are with me, and I will be with my descendants. In this scenario we are not conquering death in a physical sense; we are achieving historical immortality through my 'charismatic proximity to a distant future and closeness to a distant past (Ethical Man, p. 169).'
This is a different approach to history than we get in normal history classes. It's very different from the logical approach of one of my favorite historians Hendrik van Loon, in his famous The Story of Mankind (originally written in 1921), who wrote, 'The history of the world is the record of a man in quest of his daily bread and butter.' I agree more with another great historian I read extensively in that youth of mine, Will Durant (1885-1982), 'It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment.' We as Jews believe that profoundly, but Ya'akov is being taught that we are also influencing the future by our choices today. Ultimately, we are the stuff of history; we are both its result and, in turn, its cause.