Rabbi Naftali Kassorla
Parshat Haazinu 5779
Living in the Past
The following D’var Torah for this week is dedicated in memory of
ר׳ אלחנן יעקב זצ״ל בן מורי וחמי ר׳ שמואל פנחס
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The pasuk in this week's parsha tells us: זכור ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור - “Remember the days of old, reflect on the years of ages past” (Devarim 32:7).
Rashi, in his second explanation expounds upon what the Torah is suggesting: “If you have not set your attention to the past i.e. You have failed to remember the days of old, then at least consider the years of generations so that you become conscious of what might happen in the future.” Meaning, that we are encouraged to first reflect on the past, but if we do not, we should at least consider the future.
This Rashi needs an explanation. If a person person cannot reflect on the ימות עולם (days of old), why then is he capable of becoming conscious of the שנות דור ודור (of what will happen in the future)? We generally assume that someone who is able to correctly predict the future is a tremendous חכם, as we find in the Gemara Bava Batra (12a) חכם עדיף מנביא (a Sage is greater than a Prophet). A sage is greater, for he is so wise that he is able to personally intuit the future without direct word from G-d, as a prophet is given. To anticipate future events requires tremendous wisdom, intuition and attention to detail. And yet it seems from our parsha, that on the scale of things, that only once we are incapable of reflecting upon the past, should we resort to something else - to at least (see Siftei Chachamim 5) think about the future. Doesn’t this imply that reflection on the past is a more difficult achievement, and that seeing the future is for those on a lower level, as almost a mere afterthought?
If, as we assumed previously, studying the future is truly of a higher wisdom, then why is the Torah instructing us to first study the past and only once that fails, to study the future? What is so unique about studying the past?
We are familiar with the famous adage that is attributed to Edmund Burke (mistakenly, it was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana): “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” From this one may conclude that it surely makes sense for one to first and foremost, carefully study the past in order to improve his future. However this does not fully resolve our issue. The Torah is telling us that if you did not learn from the past, at least you should study the future. But how will this be of any help? Seemingly, just as he was incapable of learning from the past he will be incapable of learning from the future - a more difficult feat!
Instead I would like to suggest a different approach. While it is a great thing to display foresight, this unto itself really bespeaks nothing of the character of the person. Some people are able to intuitively piece together information and “predict” the future. But in the end that is just a talent, a G-d given skill. It does not necessarily mean that he is most righteous.
However, one who is able to accurately reflect upon and learn from the past is truly exemplary and righteous in his character. For when recounting past events, there is a natural temptation to twist the facts to fit our desired narratives – that instead we “meant this,” or it was actually the other person's fault, or really our failure wasn’t actually a failure “given the context” – but it was the only logical option...
The יצר הרע of seeing the world through the back mirror is a pernicious one, and eventually leads people to their ends. For one who cannot accurately recall events, cannot push away the clouds of willful obfuscations of the facts – he will not learn from past mistakes and is truly doomed to repeat them.
It is said jokingly that the only ones capable of changing history are G-d and the historians. Only someone who is principled and not agenda-driven is able to recount the past with clarity. History is fraught with examples of kings and warlords who erected immense statues and monuments proclaiming the complete annihilation of their enemies; yet we have verifiable archeological evidence which completely disproves them.* Why is this so? These Kings wanted to shape and create their own narrative, their own version of reality. Perhaps in their minds, in their fanciful recollection of history according to their whims, this was the truth.
Judaism teaches the concept of חשבון הנפש: taking spiritual stock of one's affairs and coming face to face with reality. Here, the Torah is emphasizing for us the importance of this exemplary trait – the ability to fearlessly and courageously view the past – not the way we want to see it, but the way it actually was – and use that as our main impetus to improve.
At this time of the year, we come before G-d, our books of deeds before him (Rosh Hashana 32b). He knows our intentions and He knows the Truth. Before Him, there is no obfuscation; there is no ability to twist the facts. Only the bare boned truth stands before Him, and we cannot escape. We can only plead to him to grant us clarity in our lives and the ability to truly learn from our actions.
May we be blessed with clarity this year and may it lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and connection to Hashem, amen.
* For example, see: The Merneptah Stele, where Egyptian King Merneptah claims that “Israel is laid to waste and his seed is not.” The Tel Dan stele left by King Hazael of Aram, who claimed that he left the “House of David” desolate. The famous Sancheriv Annals prism that claims he shut King Chizkiyahu “like a caged bird” – yet conveniently leaves out the fact that he not only didn’t succeed in breaching the walls of Jerusalem, but was also forced to retreat back to Assyria. All of these archeological remnants can only be laughable to the Jew of today, as we stand on the perch on history, our very existence serving as the punchline.