Beginnings and Ends: Musings about History (Ideas #132)

As we begin reading the Book of Shemot, we may well wonder what defines it as a separate book. That is to say, why are there not four books of the Torah, with Shemot being the second part of Bereshit (as suggested by Netziv in his introduction to Shemot); alternatively why is the Torah broken up into five books altogether? These questions stand in even stronger relief when we note the media’s predictable attempts to somehow portray the last decade as a distinct period of time. Here too, we have every reason to ask whether the end of a decade really has any conceptual significance.


I remember a history professor once asking, “When the Renaissance began, did people wake up in the morning knowing that it was the beginning of a new era?” What made this rhetorical question funny was the obvious answer that they did not. Historical periods rarely begin on a dime.


And yet there are significant breaks in time as there are in a series of books like the Torah – though it generally takes Divine insight or historical perspective to see them. These breaks represent a new orientation, a new focus or a major new thought paradigm. At the same time, these changes appear below the level of human perception – had Shemot begun a chapter later or earlier than it does, I can’t imagine that we would protest. This is not only true of the Torah’s first books. Most of history happens right below our awareness level. Events occur, trends unfold but they generally leave us more confused than anything else.


Occasionally a work is written to try to make some sort of historical sense of what is going around us and, by finding the key to what separates one time period from another, strikes a deep chord within us. Dr. Hyam Soloveitchik did so in the Orthodox community when he wrote his famous essay, “Rupture and Reconstruction.” Works like The End of History by Francis Fukayama and The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington did much the same for larger circles. Lacking prophecy and/or historical perspective, we are all the more curious to know where we are going, when and how the current era will end and what will characterize the contours of the next major time period.


These observations are not only meant to get us thinking about the nature of novelty. Perhaps the most important observation generated by the move from the first Biblical era to the next is that the groundwork for the new era of Shemot was really built in Bereshit. More generally, it shows that constructive work in one era bears fruit in subsequent eras, even if unexpected and radically different fruit.  Without this insight, historicism could well bring us to the precipice of nihilistic apathy.  We could otherwise not be faulted for the realism of Kohelet’s observation that all that we build in our times will be destroyed and replaced in others; that our efforts to improve the world are so transient as to not be worth a moment’s effort.


Another important teaching from the beginning of Shemot is the realization that what appears to be a catastrophe may, from a historical perspective, end up being a blessing, and vice-versa. The Torah tells us that G-d’s response to the suffering of the Jews in Egypt was to make them multiply greatly. The Divine text seems to indicate that, for whatever reason, the latter would not have happened to the extent that it did without the former. And yet the Jews of that time certainly felt the suffering more than they felt their proliferation. Historically, however, the fruit of the affliction was the genesis of the Jewish people. Such a realization should help us be less impatient with a Jewish people and a humanity who never seem to get it right. Yes, we are obligated to try to correct the evils we see around us, but we should not be so arrogant as to feign the knowledge of what the consequences of human actions will end up being.



Historical perspective should humble us. It should make us realize how little we understand the true nature of what is going on around us. But it should also make us realize that things truly worthwhile have a staying power. Perhaps this is the wisdom encapsulated by the brilliant advice of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai that if, while planting a tree, one finds out that the Messiach has arrived, one should first finish the work at hand and only then go to greet him (Avot de R. Natan).