click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Join 400,000 Aish subscribers
Get Email Updates




History Crash Course #1: Why Study History

History Crash Course #1: Why Study History

Jewish history teaches not only to avoid past mistakes, but to understand where destiny is leading us.

by

This series is designed as a basic overview of all the Jewish history -- all 4,000 years of it.

Usually when one mentions the word "history" most people break out in a cold sweat. They remember back to high school and they associate history with the memorization of names, dates, places and events necessary only for exams and then promptly forgotten afterwards. This is probably why Mark Twain said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."

So before we actually begin talking about Jewish history, let's talk a little bit about why we need to learn history in the first place. What is history? What benefit does learning history serve?

History is, first of all, the testing ground of ideas. In the words of Lord Henry Bolingbroke (1678-1751): "History is philosophy with examples." We can talk in theory about ideas, but the passage of time clearly shows us which ideas are right or wrong --what works and what doesn't. So, for instance, a hundred years ago a Communist and a Capitalist could debate which system would dominate the world, but recent history has shown us that Communism has failed and Capitalism continues to flourish.

There's a tremendous amount of lessons that can be learned from history. As the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it."

So the basic reason to learn history, in general, is that people, more or less, are always the same. Empires rise and fall, technology might change, the geopolitical realities of the world might change, but people tend to do the same stupid things over and over again. And unless we learn from the past and remember it, and apply those lessons for the future, we're destined to get stuck in the same rut and repeat the same mistakes over and over.

SPECIAL THEME

This theme applies to Jewish history as well. The Torah teaches:

Remember the days of old; understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate to you, your elders and they will tell you (Deut. 32:7).

But Judaism also introduced a concept into human history that is revolutionary in all aspects, particularly in the aspect of morality and the notion of history in general -- the idea of an infinite God who acts in history.

The Jewish conception of God is that of Creator, Sustainer and Supervisor, which means not a God who created the world and then went on vacation to Miami, but an infinite Being who is actively involved in creation. To put it more philosophically: The entire physical world is a creation of God's consciousness. The universe has no independent existence outside of God "willing" it to exist.

Everything in the universe is under God's control -- from the quantum to the cosmic. This has monumental implications for the events that take place on the tiny speck in the universe that we call Earth. If God knows and controls everything, then history is a controlled process leading to a destination.

Since God is the cosmic scriptwriter, director and producer, the events of human history are not random. This is a story with a plot -- a goal. This means we're headed for a specific destination; there is a finish line.

Before we begin to look at Jewish history we should first step back and get a sense of big picture-the basic outline of both the plot and the timeframe for history.

The Dawn of History

We begin counting the Jewish Year One from the creation of Adam who is seen as the physical and spiritual pinnacle in terms of the creation of the world.

As the Book of Genesis relates it, Adam was created on the sixth day in the process of creation, more than 5760 years ago. (The year 2000 of the Common Era is equivalent to the year 5760 in the Hebrew calendar)

Adam is unique among the other creatures, inhabiting the earth not just because he gives rise to such an amazingly innovative group of descendants, but because Adam is created b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God." (Genesis 1:26) This means he has a soul -- a neshama -- a higher, spiritual, intellectual essence. This Divine spark is the God-like essence we human beings all have.

Once Adam is completed, God then, so to speak, takes off His cosmic watch, hands it to Adam and says, "Now we switch to earth time." A day becomes a revolution of the earth on its axis, a year is the earth going round the sun once, etc. According to Jewish chronology, God took off His watch more than 5760 years ago.(1)

There is a profound lesson rooted in the idea of starting the Jewish calendar from the completion of Adam. Just as the movie director starts the cameras rolling when the big actors show up on the set (even though years of preparation may have gone into the project before the actual filming starts), so too does God start His earth clock when Adam appears on the planet. The lesson to be learned form this is that the focus of creation is humanity. God creates an entire universe for human beings. The ultimate question is then, why are we here? What is the purpose of creation?

Many people believe that God needs us so He created man to serve Him. This is not the Jewish perspective on creation. If God is infinite, then He has no needs or wants. He lacks nothing and there is absolutely nothing we can do for Him. So why were we created?

One of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism is that God created us give us the ultimate gift: a relationship with Himself, transcendence (in Hebrew the word is dvekut – attachment). Connecting to God is the ultimate form of relationship and that which our soul ultimately yearns for. Every pleasure we experience and every meaningful relationship we make in this world is just a small taste of the ultimate relationship of our soul with our creator. (see: Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem I:2:1)

That is what the Garden of Eden is all about. It is not, as it is so often portrayed in art, some kind of tropical Club Med. Rather it is the ideal physical-spiritual reality where human beings are freed from all the things that distract them: bills, shopping, carpools etc and are totally focused on achieving the purpose of creation: elevating ourselves and the world around us to the highest possible relationship with God.

The plot line of human history should have been very straightforward: God places us in a perfect environment where are free to do that which we were created for. We spend the rest of history hanging out in the Garden, perfecting creation and building relationship with God.

Unfortunately something went badly wrong. Beginning with Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of knowledge, the relationship began to fall apart. Humanity found it too difficult to maintain a relationship with an invisible God. People felt that showing respect to the various visible forces of nature, created by God, would be the way to indirectly show respect to God Himself. What happened however was that within a few generations worship of God was replaced by worship of nature: the sun, the moon the trees... God was forgotten and idol worship was practiced by all. The whole purpose of creation was lost. It is this breakdown of the relationship with God that categorizes the early history described in the Bible. (see Breishis Rabbah 23:10; Mishnah Torah, The Laws of Idol Worship 1:1)

The Biblical narrative describes how this spiritual decline continues for more than a millennia and a half, until we get to the story of the Flood. The basic plot of this story is straight forward: The purpose of creation is relationship with God. That relationship was totally lost so God decided to "clean out" the world, sparing only Noah (who, alone, maintained a relationship with God). The hope was that Noah would repopulate the world and rebuild the relationship. It doesn't work and humanity continues to decline until the Tower of Babel. The focus of that story is humanity united for all the wrong reasons: to rebel against God. (See Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a) Already by this point in the Book of Genesis things are not going well for humanity. It looks as if God will have no choice but to destroy the world and start again from scratch. But when all seems lost along came one man who changed the course of history.

Abraham's Mission

Abraham is great for two reasons. In an almost entirely polytheistic world that has completely lost its relationship with God, Abraham, using only the power of his intellect, chose to see the reality of one God. When we first meet Abraham in the Bible in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 12:1), he is already 75 years old. This may well have been the first time that God spoke to him! This would mean that until that point, Abraham lived his whole life without prophecy, without any kind of outside confirmation that his ideology of monotheism was correct, and this says a lot about Abraham's dedication to truth. (See Talmud, Nedarim 32a)

Abraham is the ultimate truth-seeker. Now can you imagine being the only person in the world to believe in idea that no one else can comprehend or accept? None of us would have the chutzpah to even whisper this idea to our best friends.

This brings me to second half of Abraham's greatness. He doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He says "I choose to dedicate my life to ultimate cause; to bring humanity back to the purpose of creation-back to relationship with God." He was even willing to give his life for God. Not because God needs anyone to die for him. (God is infinite-you can't do anything for him), but rather because Abraham understood that without this relationship with God humanity is doomed. This gives us a little indication of Abraham's greatness and his idealism. He did not mind standing alone on the "other side" -- and that is the meaning of the word Ivri, in Hebrew. (see Breishis Rabbah 42:13) He stood on the other side, alone against the entire world.

This also explains what the concept of "Chosen People" is all about. Abraham, so to speak, says to God: "I choose to live with the reality of you and to bring all of humanity back to that reality." God then says to Abraham: "Then I choose you, and your descendants." What are the Jewish people chosen for? It's not for privilege (although it is a great privilege to be Jewish) but for responsibility. What's the responsibility? In Hebrew the term is called Tikkun Olam, "Fix the World." It is the ultimate cause -- to bring humanity back to the purpose of creation and create the most spiritually/morally perfect world possible. This is the national-historic mission of the Jewish people.

If we understand the purpose of creation and Abraham's mission then the rest of our plot line for human history is pretty straightforward: Humanity returns to God with the Jewish people leading the way.

If we understand this concept of the Jewish people leading the way then what happens to the Jewish people in history begins to make sense. When we talk about the Jewish people leading the way it means that they are out in front, like the point man in an infantry unit out on patrol. Just as the point man's job is to the lead the unit and avoid danger, so too the Jewish people's special role in history is to lead humanity to its goal. Just as the point man faces extra danger because he's out in front with added responsibility, so too the Jewish people have always faced unique challenges and danger. To understand this analogy is to understand what is really behind anti-Semitism and the outrageous double standard that Israel and the Jewish people are always judged by.(2) Because the Jews chose for themselves this unique responsibility, they will never be allowed to be like anyone else. The prophet Balaam said it best: "It is a nation that dwells alone and is not reckoned amongst the nations." (Numbers 23:9)

If we would chart the historical progress of humanity's return to God with the Jewish people leading the way, it would look very much like of graph of Wall Street since 1930: There have been big ups and downs but the overall picture is one of tremendous growth. So too with our story. 3,700 years ago Abraham was virtually the only person who believed in one God.(3) Today there are billions of people, Christians and Moslems, who believe in worldview that is based on Judaism. We still have a ways to go, but humanity has been radically changed by ideas introduced by Abraham almost 4,000 years ago.(4)

Jewish Time

The traditional Jewish understanding of the flow of history is similar to that found in all great epic stories: The plot unfolds within a finite time frame and is a clearly delineated into a beginning, a middle and an end. In the broadest of strokes the Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin 97a, lays out the basic themes and periods of history:

The world is to exist for six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years is the Messianic era...

The six thousand years mentioned in the Talmud is not calculated from creation of the universe, but rather from the birth of Adam and mirrors the weekly cycle. Just as the Jewish week begins on Sunday and runs through Friday, so too is human history is to comprise a maximum(5) of six millennia of history as we know it. At the end of this weekly cycle we enter the Sabbath, a day of spirituality and rest, so too after a maximum of 6,000 years of history humanity will enter the seventh millennium called "the World to Come," in Hebrew "Olam Haba." The World to Come is synonymous with the Garden of Eden and represents the culmination of the process of returning to God and perfecting the world (see Derech Hashem 1:3:4)

We see from this quote in the Talmud that these 6,000 years are further subdivided into three 2,000 years periods each with its own theme. The first 2,000 years, from Adam to the Tower of Babel is called desolation. The theme of this period: Humanity is spiritually desolate and has no relationship with God.

The second 2,000 year period, from Abraham to the completion of Mishnah c 240C.E, is called Torah. The theme of this period is Jewish national history in the Land of Israel and the flourishing of Torah (the Law).

The final 2,000 year period, from 240C.E. until the year 6,000 (the year 2,240 C.E.), is called Messiah. The theme of this final phase is humanity's return to God (led by the Jewish people). At the end of this period, but before the year 6,000, comes the Messianic Era which is the final preparatory stage before humanity enters the World to Come.(6)

So where do we, today, fit into this traditional chronology? We are in the final 2,000 year period. Specifically, at the end of the sixth millennium, Friday late afternoon, close to the approach of the Sabbath. From the Jewish perspective we are standing at the edge of history, rapidly approaching the final climatic chapter of human history that precedes the final redemption.

Cycles in History

Another profound consequence of the Jewish conception of God is the concept of cycles in history. For thousands of years, through the early 20th century, the ancient Greek conception of time held sway: time has always existed and goes on forever. There is no beginning or end sort of like running on a treadmill-you work hard, but ultimately you go no where. The ancient Greeks (and other Pagan cultures) also believed that the gods created humans to serve them. You were putty in their hands with no control over your destiny. In ancient Greek literature the theme of tragedy is the futility of fighting against your fate. Combine these two concepts, the infinity of time and fatalism and you come up with a very negative and un-empowering view of history and destiny: you're not really going anywhere and your decisions don't matter.

The Jewish take on destiny and history was radically different. It looks something like this:

Like a giant slinky opened up, this form represents the idea of repetition that is not static. This is how Judaism understands both the holiday and history cycles work. While other nation's holidays are purely commemorations of past historical events, Jewish holidays, while commemorating the past, are also opportunities for the future. Each holiday in the yearly cycle has a specific theme-a unique spiritual power associated with it: Passover is the holiday of freedom/free will; Succoth is the holiday of joy/how to properly use the physical world. As we travel through this yearly cycle and encounter these holidays, we are supposed to grow in our understanding of these basic concepts similar to getting a yearly software upgrade. If we miss the opportunity, we have to wait till it comes around next year. The idea is that we are not static we move forward, we grow.

This is also how the history cycle works. Unlike the fatalistic Greeks, Judaism believes that we have free will; our decisions matter; we control our destiny. Because our destiny is in our hands we have to earn our forward progress-whether individually during our lifetime or collectively during the course of human history-it is up to us to make the right decision and move forward. Because we have to earn our forward progress through our own efforts we are constantly cycled through challenges that enable us to use our free will to make the correct decisions and move forward. If we don't decide or make the wrong decisions we will be re-cycled through the same challenge again until we get it right. So how do we know what the right decisions this? There are two possibilities: trial and error (which can be a very long, painful process) or learn from the past-use history as our guide book.

It is precisely for this reason that we must learn AND understand Jewish history. The great 13th century Jewish scholar Nachmonides said: The actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.

This is a very famous Jewish saying and Nachmonides was not the only one to say it. What does it mean?

On the microcosmic level, within the stories of Genesis in the Bible-the earliest Jewish history, we're will see that that which happens to the earliest characters in the narrative will be repeated by their children.

On a macrocosmic level, the personalities and interactions of the early forefathers -- the patriarchs and matriarchs -- are going to be a model for all of Jewish history, and all of human history. This is why we have to pay extra special attention to what's going on at this early phase of the Bible, because here is where the patterns are set. In this early narrative lies the map, and the guidebook for the future. The destiny of the Jewish people, their strengths, weaknesses and relationship with the Gentiles-all of this is revealed in the early Jewish history of the Bible. Jewish history is Jewish destiny. Learning from the past is the key to making the right decisions about the future.

This is what we will focus on in this book. The names, dates and places are nice to know, but the lessons of the past are critical to learn for the sake of the Jewish people and humanity.

Additionally, we must remember that the Jewish people are arguably the oldest surviving people on the Planet Earth, and because they have been spread out throughout the world, when we learn Jewish history we have to pay attention to all of human history. It's a great framework for world history. To understand Jewish history means to build a great deal of general knowledge of the history of the world at large.


1) For more information of topic of the Bible and science, creation and the age of the universe see:
-Aviezer, Nathan. Fossils and Faith-Understanding Torah and Science. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 2002.
-Aviezer, Nathan. In the Beginning-Biblical creation and Science. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1990.
-Schroeder, Gerald. Genesis and the Big Bang Theory. New York: Bantam, 1990.
-Schroeder, Gerald. The Hidden face of God-Science reveals the Ultimate Truth. N.Y.: Touchstone, 2002.
-Schroeder, Gerald. The Science of God-The Convergence of Science and Biblical Wisdom. N.Y.:Free Press, 1997.

2)The columnist, Charles Krauthammer, said it beautifully: "Jews is news" Whatever a Jew or better yet the Jewish State, Israel, does, it always grabs the headlines. The double standard to which the world holds Israel is nothing short of supernatural. The fact that two thirds of all U.N. resolutions passed since 1990 have condemned Israel is classic illustration of this point. No one seems to care that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is surrounded by 22 non-democratic, totalitarian Arab States with little or no human rights or free speech. Syria occupies Lebanon for decades, but the world ignores it. Pol Pot kills 1.5 million Cambodians in the 1970's yet the UN never passed one resolution condemning him, yet when Israel starts building a fence to keep out suicide bombers the world goes mad. A 2003 European Union survey listed Israel as the number one country in the world threatening world peace beating out such peace-loving nations as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.

3)Tradition tells us that Shem and Ever, descendants of Noah, carried on the monotheistic tradition of Noah. (see Megillah 12a; Rashi, Genesis 28:9)

4)We will talk more about this topic when we get to chapters on Christianity and Islam. For a more detailed explanation of this impact see my book WorldPerfect-The Jewish Impact on Civilization. (Health Communications Inc., Deerfield, Florida, 2003)

5)Just as it is a Jewish custom to bring in the Sabbath early (before sunset on Friday) so too we may usher in this final phase of history before the Jewish year 6,000 which is deadline.

6)The concept of Messiah is central to Christianity but actually originates in Jewish sources (The word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word mashach meaning anointing {"Christ" in Greek} or in this case chosen by God). The Messiah's job is to prepare humanity to return to the ideal state that existed prior to humanity's fall in Genesis. This future, ideal state is called Olam HaBah, "the World to Come." The Messianic Era which proceeds this period is ushered in by the Messiah, a descendent of King David. The entire period is characterized by the Jewish people's collective return to Judaism and Israel and culminates in the entire world returning to the relationship with God. Maimonides summarizes the concept of Messiah as follows:

The King Messiah will arise and restore the kingship of David to its former state and original sovereignty. He will rebuild the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel. If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates in Torah, occupies himself with the commandments...prevails upon Israel to walk in the ways of Torah...fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the messiah. He will prepare the whole world to serve the lord together (see Mishna Torah; Laws of Kings Chap.12)

Published: November 4, 2000


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Article 1 of 68 in the series Jewish History

Visitor Comments: 36

(36) Leonardo Arenas, September 13, 2013 8:52 AM

A Fitting Definition of "HISTORY"

History is a combination of two words involving God and His Creation - HIS STORY.

(35) keeny monayao, June 19, 2013 12:03 AM

i love it....thank
you so much

(34) Anonymous, March 9, 2010 2:20 PM

love this series

I love this series! I put a link to it on my new blog, http://jewishreadinglist.blogspot.com/

(33) Zahava Pasternak, January 27, 2008 9:28 AM

This Series is Wonderful

Jewish history is something I did not learn as a Christian. Now that I am a Orthodox Jew - I can not my thirst for Jewish History. This series is published in a book I hope. I want to purchase it.

(32) Menashe Kaltmann, June 5, 2007 11:43 PM

This kicks off a wonderful series!

This is truly a wonderful series! I have read practically all the instalments from aish.com and R.Ken Spiro and recommend this scholarly work!

If we take history seriously and try and learn the lessons wouldn't we Jews be better off especially when we see G-d's hand guiding our destiny?!

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub
Sign up today!