Remember the days of old, consider the years of each generation. (32:7)

History is an integral part of Jewish life. The Torah tells us, “Remember the days of old, consider the years (shenos) of each generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say it to you.” A Jew must always remember the Exodus, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the forty years in the desert and all the other seminal events of our history that form the foundation of our faith and our observances. A Jew must see Hashem’s hand in the events of the past and their consequences. As a secular philosopher once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

This we all know and understand. But what is the significance of the repetitive language of the verse? How does “remember the days of old” differ from “consider the years of each generation”?

The Menachem Tzion resolves this question homiletically. The word for “years” used here, shenos, can also be translated as “the changes.” Consider the changes of each generation. Understand that the lessons of the past must be applied to the present with wisdom and discernment. Times change, people change, circumstances change. Not everything that worked in the past will work today, and not everything that failed in the past would fail today. The Torah can never be changed but it has enough built-in flexibility to allow it to adapt perfectly to all times and places. We have to think and consider hard before we make the application.

The Divine Protectorate

With broad strokes Moshe present the sweep of history, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of each generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say it to you. When the Supreme One gave nations their portion, when He separated the children of man, He set the borders of peoples according to the number of the people of Israel.”

Rashi gives a Midrashic interpretation of the references. “Remember the days of old” is a general admonition to recall what happened to our predecessors who angered Hashem. “Consider the years of each generation” refers to the generation of Enosh who were inundated by ocean waters and the generation of the Great Flood. “When the Supreme One gave nations their portion, when He separated the children of man” refers to the generation of the Dispersion when people tried to build the Tower of Babel.

We have a rule, however, that the plain meaning of the verse is always significant. The simple interpretation of these verses is an admonition to us to understand history and learn its lessons.

As Jews, we believe that the Almighty is not only the Creator but that He is also the Guide of history. We see His hand in the historical events that we witness. And the Torah is telling us that “He set the borders of peoples according to the number of the people of Israel.” The ultimate purpose of the wars and conflicts that shape the world, the shifting borders of the globe, all of these are determined by the Divine plan for the Jewish people. We may not see it immediately. We may never see it at all. But in some way, the destiny of the Jewish people turns the intricate wheels of history.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman, whom the Nazis murdered at the beginning of the Second World War, quotes these verses as proof that all world history revolves around the Jewish people. “When the Treaty of Versailles drew a new map of Europe [at the end of the First World War],” he writes, “the borders were already drawn in Heaven.”

One does not have to be a politically astute individual to appreciate the impact of the breakup of the Soviet Union on the Jewish people. But we sometimes think the smaller details do not really affect us. What difference is it to us whether or not Azerbaijan goes its own way? What difference is it to us if Chechnya declares its independence? But this is a mistake. It makes a difference – even if we don’t see it.

What difference did it make if the Ottoman Empire sided with the Allies or the Germans during the First World War? Who at the time gave it a second thought from the perspective of the Jewish people? But in retrospect, it was a critical decision. By choosing the wrong side, the Ottoman Turks were forced to surrender their possessions in the Middle East, among these a dusty strip of land called Palestine. Great Britain received the mandate for Palestine, which opened the way for the establishment of modern-day Israel.

When we see maps changing, we need to hold our breaths. Somehow or another, this will affect us, either for the good or, Heaven forbid, otherwise. Sometimes it is for our benefit. Sometimes, God forbid, it is for our punishment. We are always on center stage, because we are the protectorate of the Master of the Universe.