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Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

A Brief History of History

Newly Revised

"Friendship is one heart in two bodies."(Ibn Ezra - Torah commentator)

The book of Genesis is the history of the world.

It is the pained and, unfortunately, consistent story of brothers not getting along. It starts with Cain and Abel ("Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:9) and only ends when two brothers finally get the right answer, "yes."

You have no doubt heard it said that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana). I would like to suggest the consistent lesson to be learned from history is that people don't learn. The paradox is clear, we can only learn from history because people don't learn from it, they will do in the future what they have done in the past! If people did learn from history then the past would hold none of its lessons to what the future will bring.

I like to ask people what was the most meaningful invention of the 20th century? The 20th century saw more inventions per minute than any other time since the wheel. But which one was the best?

Most people answer penicillin, the telephone, the computer, etc. But none of these made life more meaningful, they only made it faster. They allowed us to do the things we had done before, but faster, cheaper, easier. My question is, which invention completely turned human history on its head?

Give up?

OK, let's look at the First World War. Do you know what it was originally called?

It wasn't the First until the Second came along. It was called The Great War. Hey, there's an interesting name for you.


It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. After WW1, mankind pondered, what can we learn so that we don't do this again?

They sure got that one wrong. Obviously. Because we got the Second World War.

Do you think mankind tried to learn its lesson then?

Not so fast.

By all accounts, the Cuban Missile Crisis should have been WW3. If it had, there wouldn't have been a Fourth World War. "I don't know what will be used in the next world war, but the 4th will be fought with stones" -- Albert Einstein.

Why is it so difficult to learn from history?

Simply put, the first step to learning from history is not to blame the other guy. If we aren't willing to accept responsibility for what happened, then we will surely repeat it.

The reason the Cuban Missile Crises was not WW3 is not because people "got it," but rather technology, or I should say, God came to the rescue.

The Atom Bomb should have been, by all accounts of history, the last thing man invented. Mankind always, always, used its most potent weapons. No country ever developed a better gun or missile just for show.

But "The Bomb" changed the course of history. It is the reason western man has enjoyed the longest period of sustained peace in its history. That's meaningful.

It not only changed the way we do business, war business that is, but it changed our whole way of thinking about the other guy. We had to consider his opinion. I personally believe it was this that sparked all kinds of social reflections: the Civil Rights movement, the Equal Rights Movement, etc. From asking ourselves "How do the Russians see it?" a new way of thinking was ushered in.

That, my friends, is the story of Genesis. Instead of what should have been, according to the flow of history, another battle of brothers, Ephraim and Menashe figured it out.

The story goes like this, Jacob, before he dies, blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:12-20). In the process, he deliberately gives the younger son the greater honor. This is something that in previous generations would have started another sibling battle. This time, however, it ends, as we are finding in our own time, with a greater blessing to mankind.

As Rabbi Noach Wienberg explains, that is why we bless our sons that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe rather than like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (our Patriarchs). More than we want our children to be great, we want them to find peace.

Remember this message as you educate your children and push them to "be all they can be." It was not for a lack of very clever and well accomplished people that mankind continually fought with each other. Not genius, but the spirit of peace has achieved much more than anyone could ever imagine.

Being great is good, but living together in peace is better. In other words, it doesn't matter how smart you are, living together in peace will achieve much more. Or, put another way, if you want your children to succeed in life, teach them how to get along.

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity." (Psalms 133:1)

* * *

"There are only two sides to an argument, when you aren't one of them." Alternatively, everyone, in every dispute, thinks they are in the right. This kind of thinking isn't wrong, but sometimes peace is more important, and apologizing will lessen the pain of conflict.

* * *


Question 1: The most meaningful way to show your children how to get along with people is to exhibit such behavior yourself. Are you involved in any ongoing dispute with friends or relatives? How could you resolve this?

Point 1: Remember, when you are in the wrong, apologizing is just the right thing to do. A hero apologizes when he is in the right. All for the sake of peace.

December 27, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Anonymous, January 11, 2017 12:22 PM

Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting!

(5) Anonymous, December 24, 2015 1:46 PM

Great article! Thanks for posting!

(4) Scott Voltz, December 14, 2013 4:41 PM

Estranged from my brother

I still have work to do! Our last meeting involved him speaking cruel words to my wife and me decking him because of it. I don't believe you can forgive someone who hasn't asked for it and I think I was morally justified in my response. Our fighting goes back to childhood.

All the best to you!

(3) Rabbi Baars, December 13, 2010 12:05 AM

Need Clarity

Dear Scott, peace is always preferable, but that is not the same as giving in. If America had tried to convince the Russians they were wrong that would have been better, unfortunately that technique is rarely used.

(2) Scott, January 10, 2009 9:03 AM

Need clarity

I enjoy your commentaries and often post them on my facebook page for other Jewish friends to see! In the Soviet case, was peace preferrable to fighting the evil that communism was? Is peace preferrable to fighting the evil the Saddam, Hitler, and Hirohito had become. You seem to be switching between macro issues and micro issues and I am not clear. This is personally an issue for me in my life as I sometimes mix them myself and end up making enemies unnecessarily. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts.

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