Is History Important?

If we forget or choose to ignore the suffering and lessons of the past because, maybe, that would disturb our comfort and interfere with our “happiness,” we will lose the plot of our existence.

Cheshbon Nefesh, Jewish HistoryAug 11, 2016

Jewish HistoryAug 11, 2016

Looking out over the sea of Galillee (Image © Keren Hannah)


Hashiveinu! Turn us to You, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21)

I am not sure if it is there anymore but, before the recent major renovations, a quote attributed to the Baal Shem Tov was inscribed above the exit of the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

It read:

“Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”[1]

The fast days and special periods of reflection in the biblical calendar help us delve intentionally into God’s purposes in history; to plumb the depths of meaning both of the joys and of the tragedies and suffering of the past. As we do, we can marvel at how the ancient voices speak directly into our present reality and shine a light of understanding on today’s circumstances of confusion and pain. History, as God’s story, is the cord that binds his people together. It is the crucible of the past that unites us and, as we learn from it, we can be transformed and propelled into the future with a clearer vision of his redemptive purposes.

Holocaust survivor, and renowned author and teacher, the late Eli Wiesel (z”l), endured memories of great suffering, and he said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”[2]

If we forget or choose to ignore the suffering and lessons of the past because, maybe, that would disturb our comfort and interfere with our “happiness,” we will lose the plot of our existence. Without its anchor of core values and deeper meaning we will be drifting aimlessly in a shallow and meaningless sea.

Western culture presents us with a perfect example. With its emphasis on youth and pressing forward without regard for, or understanding of, the roots of history, there is no awe, respect, or gratitude for what went before. Thus, as Erica Brown describes, “Memorial Day [in the United States] is not observed as a mourning period for the loss of soldiers; it is a day of barbecues, sales, and public pool openings.” We may notice, too, that Thanksgiving has lost its historic and spiritual meaning and has become a day of lavish and excessive turkey dinners and football. The values have been lost along with the remembrance and there is a shallowness about it all. This also can be applied to Christianity that has cut itself off from the history of its Jewish roots; and the celebrations of Christmas and Easter can be viewed in the same light. The plot has been lost.

God’s timeframe for history is found only in the biblical calendar. At present we are experiencing the Three Weeks of reflection and repentance, which fall between 17 Tammuz (eve of the 24th July) through Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av (14 August). On the seventeenth of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached and, after great suffering and the murder of her inhabitants, on Tisha b’Av the Holy Temple, the House of God, was destroyed. As tragic as it was, the loss of the building itself was not the deepest sorrow. One can compare the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001. The deeper tragedy was the loss of thousands of lives—each of which impacted further ripples of families and friends—as well as all of us who cared with aching hearts. The loss of the visible reminder of the Presence of God, the loss of his city, a capital that stood as a spiritual heart for his people, and the exile from the land, as well as the baseless hatred—of the enemy and among the people themselves—that caused it; these are the reasons for mourning on Tisha b’Av.

While we certainly can rejoice today at the restoration of the land of Israel and her people to it, and the reclamation of Jerusalem as the capital city, the story is not yet over. The warfare and pain continue and we teeter on the brink as a result of man’s forgetfulness and rejection of the ways and purposes of God. And so we mourn and repent, and pray and trust, and our hope is anchored in the mercy, compassion, and power of the God of Israel. We can simply continue to serve him in faith and he will steadily accomplish the ultimate goal of his great redemption for all the earth.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

  1. Quoted in the Introduction to In the Narrow Places by Erica Brown.
  2. Ibid., (Nobel Lecture, 11 December, 1986)
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About the Author: Keren Hannah (Jerusalem, Israel) is the director of Keren is a frequent teacher and lecturer at the FFOZ Bram Center in Jerusalem and author of the forthcoming book, Taste of Torah: A Devotional Study Through the Five Books of Moses.

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