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August 6, 2010 5:29 pm

Re’eh: How Jews View History

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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Progress

“I have lost my faith in the idea of progress.” With those words columnist Anthony Lewis spoke the epilogue to his career as a leading voice of the Liberal Left. On the occasion of his retirement in 2001, after 50 years with the New York Times, Lewis’ retrospective comments on the past century were cast in gloom: “the most disappointing fact of life in the 20th century,” he said, “was that, contrary to my expectations, after the Holocaust, the century continued to be riddled with the extraordinary ability of human beings to hate others…” He went on to cite the failure of socialism, as well as the more recent disillusionments of Rwanda, Bosnia, September 11th, and the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

It has taken over two centuries, but the Enlightenment vision of a world perfected by human reason has yielded to the realities of human madness. For a long time, Western society has been permeated with the belief that Progress — the eradication of poverty, disease and war through science and social engineering — was the direction of society. But this faith has been swept aside by oceans of blood and unrelenting evil. It turned out that man left to his own devices was not as “good” and “rational” as the philosophers of Enlightenment imagined he would be.

In the medieval ages man killed man in the name of G-d, so in the 19th century man killed G-d. But alas, in the 20th century man was killing man again, this time in the name of secular ideals and values and with unparalleled brutality and systemization. What will be the fate of the 21st century?

Mr. Lewis, apparently in desperation, maintains that “it’s still worth appealing to reason.” When you’ve got nothing, as Bob Dylan says, you got nothing to lose. What is the Jewish approach to his dilemma?

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In the Jewish view, humanity will be healed when faith and reason will discover their inner, seamless unity; when awareness of G-d will not become an excuse for brutality and violence, but will challenge humanity to curb its self-centeredness and recognize the G-dliness and holiness within every other human being. The function of Torah – the blueprint toward healing the world – is to help us achieve this unity within our lives.

According to a research at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without a major problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole.

This metaphor captures how Judaism understands history. Many legs of the journey were indeed filled with chaos, darkness and absurdity; but the voyage (the “word”) had a beginning – “in the beginning G-d created heaven and earth” — and a destination: “On that day G-d and His name will become one (2).” The Jewish people did not succumb to despair, because they would not allow the individual “letters” of history to consume them. They knew that there was a larger picture unfolding; that history was a journey from chaos to order, from fragmentation to unity. The play called life had a moral director and a meaningful ending, albeit a painful plot.

Dancing to the Clock

Which reminds us of a lovely Chassidic story.

In one of his travels, Chassidic master Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz stayed over one night at a wayside inn. In the morning, he sought out the innkeeper.

“The clock,” he asked excitedly, “the clock you have hanging in my room — where is it from? Where did you get that wonderful clock?”

“Why,” said the surprised innkeeper, “it’s quite an ordinary clock. There are hundreds like it hanging in homes throughout the country.”

“No, no,” insisted the Rabbi. “This is no ordinary clock. You must find out for me where this clock comes from.”

If only to humor his guest, the innkeeper made some inquiries, which yielded the information that this clock once belonged to the famed “Seer of Lublin,” Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz. An heir of the “Seer” had been forced by poverty to sell all his possessions, and so the clock passed from owner to owner until it came to hang in one of the guestrooms of the inn.

“Of course!” exclaimed Rabbi Dov Ber upon hearing the clock’s history. “This clock could only have belonged to the ‘Seer of Lublin.’ Only the Seer’s clock could mark time in such a manner!

“Your standard clock,” he explained to his host, “strikes such a mournful tone. ‘Another hour of your life has passed you by,’ it says. ‘You are now one hour closer to the grave.’ But this clock proclaims: ‘Another hour of galut (exile) has gone by. You are now one hour closer to the coming of Moshiach and the Redemption…’

“All through the night,” concluded Rabbi Dov Ber, “whenever this clock sounded the hour, I leapt from my bed and danced for joy.”

Your Destitute Brother

What is our responsibility in ushering in this time of history?

An isolated verse in this week’s Torah portion (Reah) discusses this question.

“If one of your brothers in any of the cities in the Land that G-d gives you, should be destitute,” Moses tells the Jewish people several weeks before his passing, “do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother.”

Based on the traditional axiom that each verse in the Torah contains diverse interpretations on many different levels, Rabbi Chaim Ban Atar (who lived in Jerusalem in the 1700s and wrote a fascinating commentary on the Bible called Or Hachaim) views this verse, discussing the obligation to give charity, as an allusion to the ultimate purpose of existence:

The “destitute person,” says the Or Hachaim, homiletically represents the man who is destined to usher in the era of universal redemption and is described in the Prophets as “a poor man riding on a donkey.”

This man, known in Jewish literature as Moshiach, is destitute because, like a classic pauper, he is never content. Moshiach never ceases to yearn for a world free of the bloodshed and evil that pervades it. At every moment, Moshiach longs for the time in history when the Divine image constituting the essence of each of us will emerge and determine our daily behavior and attitudes toward our fellow human beings.

Moshiach thus embodies the feeling of destitution that characterizes the very raison d’etre of the Jewish people: the refusal to accept the evil within man and within society and the passionate commitment to heal our civilization through Divine ethics and spirituality that unite rather than divide.

This, he explains, is the deeper meaning of the phrase “If there shall be a destitute person among you … do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your destitute brother”. It means that never for a moment shall you shut your heart and become apathetic to the cry of the poorest and most driven man in history, Moshiach. Never become complacent to the evil and dysfunction of civilization. Open your heart and stretch out your arms to aid your destitute brother in bringing redemption to a world desperately in need of it.

Until that bright moment, the Jew can’t fully enjoy his or her material successes. Through Mitzvos, Torah study, prayer, charity, education and an ongoing commitment to the purpose of history, each of us is called upon to fulfill the craving and dream of Moshiach.

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