This week I have been thinking a lot about the importance of studying history. History, at its core, is the study of people. History can help us understand ourselves as a people, as we see patterns that repeat themselves. It can also help us contextualise how different cultures, people and societies behave.
Our identities are inextricably linked to our history. Our families, cultures, religions, and identities are often shaped by our common purposes, which are formed by our past collective experiences. History helps us explain our roots. We need this understanding in order to help explain why we behave and act in the way we do.
So when, in this week’s parsha, Ekev, Moshe retells the history of the Jewish people in the desert, we can understand why the retelling of these stories is important.
To strengthen the people’s belief that God will protect them when they enter the Land of Israel and battle its inhabitants, Moshe reminds them of what God did to Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Devarim 7:17-21). To instill in them the understanding that their sustenance comes from God, he reminds them of the wonders and miracles that God performed for them during their travels in the desert — giving them manna when they were hungry, giving them water when they were thirsty, making their clothes not wear out and their feet not swell for the 40 years of journeying (Devarim 8:3-4,15-18). And to impress upon them the consequences of disobeying God, he recounts in great detail the story of the golden calf (Devarim 9:8-21). In this way, Moshe teaches them the importance of their collective experiences and the lessons that can be learned from them.
The importance of learning from the lessons of history can be derived from the pasuk in Parshat Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:7):
זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם, בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר וָדֹר; שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father – he will tell you, your elders – they will inform you.
The Chazon Ish also acknowledges that knowing and teaching history to our children can remind us of God’s power and thereby increase our awe of God. In Emunah U’Bitachon (1.8) he states: “words of history and world events are highly educational in showing the way to the wise… [upon which] we should build [our own] foundations of wisdom”.
We can see Jewish history as a cycle, one in which each event connects to the next event. As we travel through history these cycles can repeat themselves. We can see this idea in the language of Ramban that
כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים.
All things that happen to the parents are a sign for the children.
Many of the behaviours, cycles and patterns witnessed by our children are likely to be repeated. This is why we have to pay special attention to our behaviour — the good and the bad.
Similarly, there is a good chance that cycles from events in Jewish history will be repeated and the pattern will continue. So, from a Jewish perspective, history is also a form of understanding our destiny so that we can make the right decisions about our future. In our narrative lies the handbook for the future that we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.
So, from a Jewish perspective, history is also a form of understanding our destiny so that we can make the right decisions about our future. In our narrative lies the handbook for the future that we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.
With these thoughts in mind, I know that I will read Parshat Ekev with extra emphasis and concentration. The retelling of our historical events by Moshe is of critical importance to understanding our future.
The global pandemic continues with no obvious end in sight. The difficulties continue to pile on, week after week as communities, families, and countries are forced to shut down, severely limit people’s movements, and cancel things that we enjoy and look forward to. But in the future we will look back on our experiences and actions during this time and know that our behaviour and compliance with these strict requirements in order to contribute to the greater good of global health demonstrated what kind of people we are. We continue to look out for the needy. As a community, we check in on the sick and the vulnerable. And we look out for our friends and family members who are struggling. I know when we look back at our history over this period, we will be proud of ourselves and will set an example for our children.
Nomi Kaltmann is from Melbourne, Australia. Nomi comes to Maharat after earning her Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Liberal Arts in Politics and Jewish Civilizations from Monash University. She also holds a Masters degree in Legal Practice from the Australian National University. Previously Nomi has worked for the Shadow Attorney General of Australia and as an advisor to the former Minister for Small Business in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Nomi also coordinated and accompanied a Parliamentary delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Specialising in charities and not-for-profit law, Nomi has worked for the Australian Charities Commission. Nomi was one of the founding members of the Women’s Orthodox Tefillah Group in Victoria. She has previously studied at Midreshet HaRova and completed a Masters research unit that looked at the current state of Australian family law and issues relating to Agunot and Gett. Nomi is married to Daniel Guttmann and they have two beautiful children.
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