In preparing this week’s Thoughts, I came across a couple of fairly well-known sayings, and while they appear to be in contrast, they really are not. The first one, I share will be in three forms of the same idea.
The oldest account is by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who is often misquoted as having said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Then there was the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952) who was credited as saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Finally, the British statesman, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The common thread in each of these statements is that one must not only know ones past but actively remember it if they do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Then the contrasting quote, is attributed to the modern American actor/writer, Michael McMillian (1978-present),
You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.
In other words, according to Mr. McMillian, it is difficult, maybe even impossible to move on if one is always dwelling in the past. Today, this is a particular malady for many baby-boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 as well as Generation Xers, 1964 and the early 1980s. With all the problems in the world today, we often look back nostalgically on days gone by before the internet and social media. Life was slower, more carefree, and many of the troubles that plague today’s world was not even imagined. We often forget that during this carefree time there was the Cold War, the Korean and Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missel Crisis. And although illegal abortions and substance abuse problems have long been with us, the latter part of the 1950s through the 1980s saw an explosion of these problems.
What does this emphasis on the past have to do with this week’s parasha? Much I believe. This week’s parashah, Maasei, Numbers 33:1 – 36:13, brings the book of Numbers to a close. Bnei-Israel has wandered in the wilderness for thirty-eight plus years and are preparing to soon enter the land of Canaan which was promised to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The parashah begins,
These are the journeys of Bnei-Yisrael when they came out of Egypt by their divisions under the hand of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the stages of their journeys at ADONAI’s command. These then are their journeys by stages. (Numbers 33:1-2)1
As is often the case, the sages look at verse 2, and seem to be in a quandary over the word order. “Moses recorded the stages of their journeys at ADONAI’s command. These then are their journeys by stages.” According to Rabbi Twerski,
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch says that when God made the Israelites break camp, the purpose was always to reach a fresh goal. Each journey was a progress toward a goal. But to the people it was the reverse. They were generally dissatisfied wherever they stayed. They just wanted to leave. It did not matter where they were going next. Hence to God it was “their goings forth according to their journeys” (or “the stages of their journeys”), whereas to the Israelites it was their “journeys according to their goings forth” (or “their journeys by stages”).2
Think back to the number of times Bnei-Israel complained to Moses about various situations they found themselves in during their time in the wilderness and the number of times they nostalgically looked back on their time in Egypt, as something to be desired, totally forgetting the oppression and slavery they had been under. In other words, in verse 2, may be showing two different perspectives, or possibly two different reasons for Bnei-Israel’s moving on.
According to R’ Hirsch, the reason for the listing of “the stages of their journeys at ADONAI’s command” was to remind Bnei-Israel of HaShem’s guidance and care. In Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people that even when disciplined, they were cared for.
You are to remember all the way that ADONAI your God has led you these 40 years in the wilderness—in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His mitzvot or not. He afflicted you and let you hunger, then He fed you manna—which neither you nor your fathers had known—in order to make you understand that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of ADONAI. Neither did your clothing wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these 40 years. Now you know in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so ADONAI your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2-5)
Much later, Sha’ul would write to the Corinthians as well as to each of us today,
Now these things happened to them as an example, and it was written down as a warning to us—on whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)
But, as much as learning from the past is important, it may be just as important not to live in or excessively yearn for the past. As stated earlier, many times Bnei-Israel’s solution to their complaints against Moses was to return to Egypt, which if they had done, they would have missed the eventual entrance into the land promised to the patriarchs. Vered and I have been in Israel now for over thirty years. We have seen numerous people over the years, singles and families make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) at the leading of the Ruach, only to return to their home country when things got too difficult. Often, these folks could not release the easier (or perceived easier) life they left behind when faced by the trials that life in Israel.
Remember, each of us are on a journey in our lives. There have been numerous stops along the way, some good, some not so good. Let’s remember the two perspectives R’ Hirsch brought out as we look back on our journey. We can see the steps along the ways as the guidance and provision of HaShem, in the good times and the bad. Or we can see them as our own running from one stop to another, either seeking something better or fleeing something perceived as unfavorable. It would do us all good to remember the words of the psalmist as well as the compiler of Proverbs
ADONAI directs a person’s steps, and he delights in his way. He may stumble, but he won’t fall headlong, for ADONAI holds him by the hand. (Psalms 37:23-24, CJB)3
A person may plan his path, but ADONAI directs his steps. (Proverbs 16:9, CJB)
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach!
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
2 Abraham J. Twerski, Twershi on Chumash, Brooklyn, Shaar Press, 2003, p 349.
3 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H. Stern.