Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Study Jewish History? Part 2 - Learning the Lessons of the Past

The Torah makes it clear in numerous places that an historical awareness – consciousness of the past – is a fundamental aspect of Judaism. Thus, for example, we have the daily obligation of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, and many other such commandments – such as the Sheish Zechiros[1] many people say after morning prayers[2] – and, of course, we have the various holidays and fast days that commemorate historical events.

The basic reason for this emphasis on the past is because, fundamentally, our entire belief in God and His Torah is based on historical events like the Exodus from Egypt and Matan Torah (lit. "the Giving of the Torah", i.e. the Revelation at Sinai). However, we don't only remember the positive events of our past, we also remember the errors (such as the sins of the golden calf and the spies) and the tragedies (such as the destruction of the first and second Temples). There is an actual mitzvah d’Oraisa (Biblical obligation) to remember the sin of the golden calf and also to remember the sin of Miriam. The purpose of remembering these events is so that we can learn from them.[3] This is also the primary purpose of fast days.[4] For this reason, the Jewish Scriptures and works of the Sages do not sanitize Jewish history. On the contrary, Scripture will frequently exaggerate the sins of our ancestors so that we can learn from them.

In his introduction to his edition of Seder HaDoros, Rav Naftali ben R’ Avraham Maskil L’Eisan (1829-1897)[5] writes that this is one of the most important purposes of studying history:
הנסיון הוא ראש המורים בכל ענין אשר נתן אל האדם לענות בו תחת השמש, ראשון הוא לכל נותני לקח טוב ללמד להועיל, ומה יכלכלו ימי חיי אנוש הקצרים לצבור לו נסיונות איש איש לנפשו ודור דור לבדו? אך דור לדור יגיד נסיונותיו, אבות לבנים יודיעו, ובניהם לדור אחרון, כרבות הדורות ירבו הנסיונות וכספות ימות עולם תרבינה הידיעות והבחינות. כל מקרה וכל מעבר אשר יעבור על גוי ועל אדם יחד יורה דעה לבאים אחריו איך יאחזו אשוריהם. כל מכשול וכל תקלה, כל סבה וכל מסובב, יביא לבב חכמה לדור יבוא לעשות כמתכנתו או להנזר ממנו, בכל חכמת בינה, בכל מלאכת מחשבת, ובכל הליכות החיים. זכרון מפעלות הצדיקים ופרי מעלליהם אשר יאכלו המה נר לרגלי בני האדם ואור לנתיבתם, ועלילת רשעי ארץ ותוצאותם למות ולאבדון הם מוסר תוכחה לאחרונים לבל יזידו ללכת בעקבותם
Experience is the chief teacher in every matter that a man must deal with in this world. It is the primary giver of beneficial good teachings. What would the brief lives of men suffice to gather experience for each individual person and each generation by itself? Rather, each generation recounts its experiences to the next, fathers tell their sons, and their sons tell the following generation, and as the generations increase, the experiences accumulate, and as the days of the world gather, knowledge and insights increase. Every event, every barrier that is passed, whether for a nation or an individual person, educates those who come later on how to emulate their success. Every obstacle and mishap, every cause and effect, brings wisdom to the coming generation enabling them to do it correctly or avoid it. So it is in every art of wisdom, every skilled craft, and in all the ways of life. The memory of the acts of the righteous and the beneficial fruits of their deeds are a candle before the feet of men and a light for their path. Whereas the deeds of the wicked and their results in death and destruction are a reproof of admonishment for those who come later to not wickedly follow in their footsteps.

[1] The “Six Remembrances” – This refers to six Biblical commandments to constantly remember certain facts. These are (1) to remember the Exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3), (2) to remember the revelation at Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:9-10), (3) to remember the war with Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), (4) to remember the sin of the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9:7), (5) to remember the punishment of Miriam (Deuteronomy 24:9), and (6) to remember to sanctify the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). With the exception of the last, all of these are commandments to remember events from the past.

[2] The Sheish Zechiros are printed in most Jewish prayer books immediately after the morning prayers, and it is a widespread custom to recite them every day at that point.

[3] The philosopher George Santayana is frequently quoted, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

[4] See Mishna Berurah 549:1

[5] The early editions of Seder HaDoros had numerous printing errors and was almost unusable. Rav Naftali Maskil L’Eisan issued a corrected edition. Although his editing of the Seder HaDoros is generally considered to have been his most significant accomplishment, Rav Naftali Maskil L’Eisan may be best known as the author of the so-called "Malbim Haggada".

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