This week I have been thinking a lot about the importance of studying history. History, at its core, is the study of people. Learning about the past, as we know, can help us to understand ourselves as people today and identify the patterns that repeat themselves. Using this knowledge we can build understanding, skills and critical thinking.
Understanding history can also help us to contextualise how different cultures, people and societies behave. Our identities are also inextricably linked to history. Our families, cultures, religions and identities are often shaped by our common purposes, which are formed on our past collective experiences. History helps us to explain our roots and we need this understanding in order to understand the world around us and explain why we behave and act in the way we do.
So when this week’s Parsha, Devarim, dedicates itself to Moshe retelling the history of the Jewish people in the desert we can understand why the retelling of these stories is important. Moshe repeats the Torah before the assembled people and retells the major events that occurred during their 40-year journey. He notes some of the significant achievements and failings as a way to teach them and remind them of the importance of their collective experiences.
In Jewish law, the verse ‘remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past, ask your father he will tell you, your elder he will inform you’ (Deuteronomy 32:7) is understood as the Jewish law basis for teaching history.
This is particularly emphasized by different Jewish legal authorities, such as the Mishna Berurah (307:58) who highlights the importance of reading and understanding different historical works and books to increase our understanding of our history. The reason for this is so we understand the tragedies that befell us and also increase our fear of heaven into our lives.
The Chazon Ishe (Emunah UBitachon 1:8) also poetically notes that “words of history and world events are highly educational in showing the way to the wise… [upon which] we should build [our own] foundations of wisdom”.
Using this idea as a guide, it is no wonder that Moshe uses this week’s Parsha to highlight the successes and failures of the people. He wants to help them in the future to understand their patterns, behaviours and ideals. By having this knowledge they will be able to emulate good behaviour and avoid behaviour that leads the nation astray.
This week, I know that I will read Parshat Devarim with extra emphasis. I know that lockdown cannot be easy for so many of you and I know that the difficulties we are facing as a State continue to pile on, week on week.
But in the future we will look back on our experiences during this time and know that our behaviour demonstrated what kind of people we are. We continue to look out for the needy with the Pay It Forward Program. As a community, we check in on the sick and the vulnerable. And we ensure that we take required mental health breaks so that we do not feel too overwhelmed with our situation. I know when we look back at our history over this period, we will be proud of ourselves.