Repeating History

Masei Mattot By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Jul 6, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. His words have been often used and more often misused. The past is not a document that can simply be pulled out of a file. The past is what we remember it to have been. How we remember it depends on how we have told it. The Torah is, among other things, a record of how the Jewish people told, or were told, its past.

Yet the Torah is difficult to use as a memory book. If an extraterrestrial being were to come to Earth and ask you about the past of the Jewish people, you would not want to hand over the Torah and say: Read this. Many of the narratives appear to be too long, repetitious and even useless in the words of Maimonides. Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed (III:50) confronts head-on the challenge often posed to the Bible — that many sections are just too wordy. He points out that there is a difference between what an individual sees and what is set down in writing. When one sees an event, one can recognize the important details. When those same details are recorded in writing, they appear to the reader, who did not see them, as unnecessary. Maimonides uses as a case in point the opening verses of Parashat Masei, which are a recapitulation of the journeys of the children of Israel in the wilderness. Each stop along the way is mentioned. For instance, why tell that the nation journeyed from a place called Rimmon Peretz to another place called Livnah (Numbers 33:19)? Is this part of the Torah nothing more than a glorified travelogue? For Maimonides, it is vitally important to the Torah, and indeed to the entire enterprise of Judaism, that these details be mentioned. The journey of the Israelites in the wilderness was no mere excursion. It was a miracle. For forty years, God protected the people from harsh conditions and fed them with manna. If the story were merely repeated orally, future listeners might consider it to be false. The detailed, written exposition of these events in the Torah is reliable testimony, according to Maimonides, that these miracles actually occurred.

The problem with Maimonides’ explanation is that many Jews do not believe that the Torah is a reliable testimony to the past, and therefore is not particularly worth remembering. Forget about the theoretical extraterrestrial who wants to know about the past of the Jewish people. Too many Jews today cannot answer basic questions on or about the history of our people, where we came from and where we journeyed. They cannot answer these questions when it is posed by Gentiles or by other Jews. They cannot answer when they ask themselves. Maimonides and numerous people, both sages and others, before and after him believed that the events described in the Torah are a reliable record because the Torah is a God-given document. However, if one does not believe that the Torah is God-given, why should one believe it to be reliable? The best response is that the Jewish nation has guarded, treasured, re-read and explained the Torah for many generations and with great intensity. This embracing and ongoing relationship with the Torah has given the document an inherent reliability.

Santayana meant that in the absence of a memory of the past, one repeats past mistakes. Yet the past is not only a record of mistakes, but of successes. Maimonides calls these successes miracles. Whether they were or not, the memory of past successes is what has enabled the Jewish people to look beyond current sorrows and believe that those successful moments could be repeated in the future. Those who do not remember the past deprive themselves of hope for the future.

Shabbat shalom

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Warshauer’s commentary on Parashat Mattot-Mase’ei have been made possible by a generous grant from 
Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.