B'midbar: "We're history."

According to the Etz Hayim Torah commentary:

A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.  They thus found their path to the future by orienting themselves to their past. (my italics)

The last sentence is striking.  American culture emphasizes looking ahead, not behind.  Americans neither think nor talk much about history.  When we do, we are as likely to view it as irrelevant or indeed as an obstacle to progress as we are to view it as something important to guide our lives.  Consider how the word “history” is mainly used in American English.  To “be history” is to be done, powerless, no longer relevant.   “That’s ancient history” means “Why even talk or think about it?”  To say that someone or a couple “has/have a history” suggests previous bad behavior or difficulties, and even a “medical history” implies prior health problems.  

In short, we usually seek to “put the past behind us,” and certainly don’t seek to “f[i]nd [our] path to the future by orienting [our]selves to [our] past.”   We prefer: “Out with the old, and in with the new,” preferably using a “new broom” to “sweep clean.”

But this American (and more generally, Western) ethos is actually one of substantial self-delusion and self-denial.  After all, the truth is, we’re all about history!  Think about it.  Why is your name what it is? Why do you look as you do? Why do you live where you do, and why is that place as it is?  Why do wear the clothes you wear?  Why do you speak English and not Yiddish, German, Russian, etc?  Why are you free to say (mostly) what you wish in public, and to worship where and how you choose, or not at all?   Why do/did you do the kind of work you do/did?  And so on.  Just about every aspect of our existence – including our “free will” choices, and even our cultural forward-looking focus --- is the result of past events and decisions we and others made.    

We often feel that non-Americans/Westerners -- Israelis and Palestinians, to pick two examples -- are obsessed with their past, real or imagined [e.g. this is our land because (we believe) such and such happened ….]  and that they are thereby unable or unwilling to look ahead.  But, it may actually be we Americans who are obsessed with looking only ahead, never to the past.   It’s certainly true that, in so doing, Americans have accomplished an incredible amount.  But perhaps we have also lost sight of who we really are, and that is products of the past. 

Our past grounds us, giving purpose and context to our lives.  When we consider our past, we can fit ourselves into a long continuum of lives, each person having contributed to a purpose greater than themselves or immediate families.   When we place importance on the past, the mission of our lives can be to continue the mission of those who came before us, or perhaps to begin a new direction that others after us will follow. 

In either case, our actions, so greatly influenced by our past (which was then “the present” for others), will, in turn, become the basis for the lives of others.  Recognizing this, that our present and future are the formative past for untold others, can and should also motivate us as to how we live our lives. 

Just as, according to Jewish tradition, the tribe of Judah – for whom we Jews are named -- thus found their path to the future by orienting themselves to their past,” so can and should we.  How can we do this?  It first requires studying and valuing our past.   It’s an indispensable part of being Jewish, for if we do not do this, what will become of our ancient values and traditions?  What of them can we pass on to our children, and they to theirs?  Our history as a people informs us, and our present as a people and as individuals will, we hope, inform future generations of Jews. 

In his Life of Reason I, George Santayana (1863-1952) said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  But while his maxim may hold true in some situations, it is probably not true of Jewish values and traditions.  If we treat our past as “history” and ignore or devalue it, it will mostly likely be forgotten by all but “historians.” 

May we therefore study and learn from our past and orient ourselves to it, even as we move forward. 

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach. 

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  • B'midbar: "We're history."

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