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Parshas Shemos (5771)

If We Don't Learn From Our Past -- We're History!

This weekend, we begin reading (again) the Second Book of the Torah, Sefer Shemos (The Book of Exodus). This book continues the narrative of the Children of Israel in Egypt as they are persecuted and enslaved by their Egyptian tormentors. Which makes the Torah sound like it’s essentially a book of Jewish history.

Yet, we know that this is not true. After all, what book of history contains 613 commandments in it? And in many places, the events that are recorded are not even in chronological order. (In the Midrashic sources, this is referred to as the principle of “Ein mukdam u’meuchar baTorah – lit. there is no early and late in the Torah”.)

Yet as much as it is not a history book, the Torah itself ‘commands’ us to learn about our history. As Moses tells the Jewish people in his last will and testament: “Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of each generation…” (see Deuteronomy 32:7).

Of course, for many today, and especially the youth, history seems to have begun from the day they were born. There is little interest or concern for what happened in the past. (Someone once quipped: “Why should I learn history? ... there’s no future in it!”)

Yet today more than ever, we Jews need to learn from our past, for three main reasons:

1) As the philosopher George Santayana once wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We Jews need to look back at what happened to those who came before us so as not to repeat the same mistakes.

But unfortunately we neglect to learn these critical history lessons – often with tragic results. Anyone who has any basic knowledge of Jewish history will see that every single time the Jews tried to assimilate and blend in with the non-Jewish culture around them, it ended in disaster.

Pick your century and country – the most recent historical example being Berlin before WWII where the Jews were more German than the Germans and yet Hitler and the Nazis sent all of these assimilated Jews to the gas chambers along with the more traditional ones.

But here we are again, just 60 years later, attempting to assimilate ourselves out of existence, thinking we will be safe and successful if we ignore our uniqueness as Jews and blend in with the non-Jews around us.

We need to remember our past and realize that this experiment has been tried by many Jews before us throughout the generations and ultimately failed – actually achieving the opposite effect where the non-Jews hated us even more.

The problem is that we can’t “remember our past” if we never studied it in the first place.

2) The more we learn about our history and what our ancestors have been up to over the centuries and millennia, the harder it becomes for us today to make a break from that tradition.

I am always amused when I read about “family traditions” that some people and cultures have dating back hundreds of years, like eating Thanksgiving dinner. Do you realize that we Jews have traditions and mitzvos (commandments) that our people have been doing nonstop for 3322 years?!

I remember once being in a crowded airport and having to put on my Tefillin (phylacteries) to pray the Shacharis (morning) service. At first I was a bit hesitant and self-conscious, wrapping my arm in those black straps and attaching that black box on my head in full view of thousands of staring non-Jews (I wonder if some of them thought I was preparing to blow up a plane!).

But then I thought to myself – do these non-Jews (and non-traditional Jews) watching me realize that Tefillin has been a tradition in our Jewish family, that my father did, and his father before him, and his father before him, in the prosperous times of the Golden Age of Spain as well as in the fiery hell of Auschwitz - dating back well over 3000 years? If they did realize that, they would surely have a greater respect and appreciation for this seemingly weird, unicorn-like ritual. And who am I to break this tradition in my family? So let ‘em stare if they want to, but I’m sure not going to stop the longest streak in history!

If only all the ‘secular’ Jews out there – our very own brothers and sisters in the Jewish family - would realize the rich legacy they carry with them, lovingly preserved for them by their forebears over thousands of years, they would at the very least take some time to learn more about the mitzvos and traditions their ancestors lived by and died for – before rejecting them and moving on.

3) When we learn about Jewish history and where we come from and what kind of lives our ancestors lived back in the ‘old country’ throughout the centuries, we begin to realize that all those crazy, cult-like laws and commandments that those ‘fanatical’ and ‘backward’ religious Jews are following today, are exactly what all of our own grandparents and great-grandparents have been doing for the past 3300 years.

It is an historical fact that before the advent of Reform Judaism in the early 1800’s, there were only two types of Jews – those who kept the Torah and all its 613 commandments and those who didn’t – and the huge majority of Jews kept the Torah and were Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant). Sure, there were break-off movements and sects in our history like the Sadducees and the Karaites who did not follow all the Torah’s commandments, but they were the exception, not the rule.

And it is virtually guaranteed that if you’re a Jew alive today, your great-grandparents, and for sure your great-great-grandparents were Shomer Shabbos and pretty much followed the Torah and all its commandments to the best of their ability.

Which means that if you think that all those seemingly trivial and arcane laws in the Torah (like the family purity laws and the kosher laws and all the many forbidden activities you can’t do on Shabbos etc.), as well as the people who follow them today, are crazy – then all the wonderful people you descend from who did all those exact same things were also crazy!

And it is hard to believe that all our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents going back thousands of years were crazy people. Sure, they might have had smallpox and polio and no iPods and Playstations back in Warsaw in the 1730’s, but they couldn’t have all been crazy! They must have had good reasons for eating only kosher and for not cooking on Shabbos and for going to the mikvah (ritual bath for women) once a month.

So in order to save us from having to call every last ancestor of ours a crazy religious fanatic, we would be wise to pick up a book or surf the internet to learn exactly why they would have chosen to do stuff that we today think is so crazy. [Click here to read an incredibly moving story about one man’s epiphany about his ancestors and the religious lives they chose to lead:]

Problem is that we’re cut off from our history and we don’t know a heck of a lot about our great-grandparents and the religious lives they lived – so we think they were probably secular just like us – but they weren’t.

If only Jews would learn their own history, what a different Jewish world it would be. History is a great teacher – but not if we don’t show up for class.

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