Today is September 25, 2017 / /

The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Ancient History: What is the Point of Learning Other People’s Stories?

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on August 3, 2017)
Topics: Torah, Devarim, Sefer Devarim, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Non-Jews & Other Religions, Torah and Mesorah

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at hresnikoff@yctorah.org.

 

Judaism today sees itself as a civilization that honors history above most things. And the history that we venerate is almost always our own. The Torah, however, in various places emphasizes the importance of knowing other people’s histories. This actually appears odd to us (as well as to early sages) precisely because knowing the history of ancient peoples, particularly those that have disappeared in the wake of our arrival on the scene, seems irrelevant to identity formation which, for us, is history’s primary purpose. However, knowing the histories of the civilizations that came before us, or those that existed parallel and unconnected to us, can teach us other values. They help us contextualize our own place in God’s creation, recognize the unique gifts and advantages God has blessed us with, as well as those that are not so unique. This contextualization can help us avoid the fallacies of history that Nietzsche correctly warned us about without applying his solution, which is to selectively edit our history so that it can serve the present.

1. Devarim 2

ט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י אֶל־תָּ֙צַר֙ אֶת־מוֹאָ֔ב וְאַל־תִּתְגָּ֥ר בָּ֖ם מִלְחָמָ֑ה כִּ֠י לֹֽא־אֶתֵּ֨ן לְךָ֤ מֵֽאַרְצוֹ֙ יְרֻשָּׁ֔ה כִּ֣י לִבְנֵי־ל֔וֹט נָתַ֥תִּי אֶת־עָ֖ר יְרֻשָּֽׁה׃
י הָאֵמִ֥ים לְפָנִ֖ים יָ֣שְׁבוּ בָ֑הּ עַ֣ם גָּד֥וֹל וְרַ֛ב וָרָ֖ם כָּעֲנָקִֽים׃
יא רְפָאִ֛ים יֵחָשְׁב֥וּ אַף־הֵ֖ם כָּעֲנָקִ֑ים וְהַמֹּ֣אָבִ֔ים יִקְרְא֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם אֵמִֽים׃
יב וּבְשֵׂעִ֞יר יָשְׁב֣וּ הַחֹרִים֮ לְפָנִים֒ וּבְנֵ֧י עֵשָׂ֣ו יִֽירָשׁ֗וּם וַיַּשְׁמִידוּם֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּשְׁב֖וּ תַּחְתָּ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֧ר עָשָׂ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לְאֶ֙רֶץ֙ יְרֻשָּׁת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥ן יְהוָ֖ה לָהֶֽם…
יט וְקָרַבְתָּ֗ מ֚וּל בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֔וֹן אַל־תְּצֻרֵ֖ם וְאַל־תִּתְגָּ֣ר בָּ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹֽא־אֶ֠תֵּן מֵאֶ֨רֶץ בְּנֵי־עַמּ֤וֹן לְךָ֙ יְרֻשָּׁ֔ה כִּ֥י לִבְנֵי־ל֖וֹט נְתַתִּ֥יהָ יְרֻשָּֽׁה׃
כ אֶֽרֶץ־רְפָאִ֥ים תֵּחָשֵׁ֖ב אַף־הִ֑וא רְפָאִ֤ים יָֽשְׁבוּ־בָהּ֙ לְפָנִ֔ים וְהָֽעַמֹּנִ֔ים יִקְרְא֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם זַמְזֻמִּֽים׃
כא עַ֣ם גָּד֥וֹל וְרַ֛ב וָרָ֖ם כָּעֲנָקִ֑ים וַיַּשְׁמִידֵ֤ם יְהוָה֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּירָשֻׁ֖ם וַיֵּשְׁב֥וּ תַחְתָּֽם׃
כב כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשָׂה֙ לִבְנֵ֣י עֵשָׂ֔ו הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בְּשֵׂעִ֑יר אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִשְׁמִ֤יד אֶת־הַחֹרִי֙ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּֽירָשֻׁם֙ וַיֵּשְׁב֣וּ תַחְתָּ֔ם עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
כג וְהָֽעַוִּ֛ים הַיֹּשְׁבִ֥ים בַּחֲצֵרִ֖ים עַד־עַזָּ֑ה כַּפְתֹּרִים֙ הַיֹּצְאִ֣ים מִכַּפְתּ֔וֹר הִשְׁמִידֻ֖ם וַיֵּשְׁב֥וּ תַחְתָּֽם…
9 And the LORD said to me: Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.—
10 It was formerly inhabited by the Emim, a people great and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites.
11 Like the Anakites, they are counted as Rephaim; but the Moabites call them Emim.
12 Similarly, Seir was formerly inhabited by the Horites; but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, wiping them out and settling in their place, just as Israel did in the land they were to possess, which the LORD had given to them…
19 You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.—
20 It, too, is counted as Rephaim country. It was formerly inhabited by Rephaim, whom the Ammonites call Zamzummim,
21 a people great and numerous and as tall as the Anakites. The LORD wiped them out, so that [the Ammonites] dispossessed them and settled in their place,
22 as He did for the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, when He wiped out the Horites before them, so that they dispossessed them and settled in their place, as is still the case.
23 So, too, with the Avvim who dwelt in villages in the vicinity of Gaza: the Caphtorim, who came from Crete, wiped them out and settled in their place.
  1. What similarities are explicitly drawn here between the history of the Moabites, the children of Esau, and the Jews? What further stylistic or historical similarities do you see?
  2. What is the purpose of describing the settlement histories of the Moabites, the children of Esau, and the Caphtorim?

2. Amos 9:7

הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם־יְהוָה הֲלוֹא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר׃To Me, O Israelites, you are Just like the Ethiopians —declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up From the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor And the Arameans from Kir.
  1. How does this text frame the stories of the Philistines and the Arameans? Why is the knowledge of this history important for the Jews?

3. Devarim 4

לב כִּ֣י שְׁאַל־נָא֩ לְיָמִ֨ים רִֽאשֹׁנִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־הָי֣וּ לְפָנֶ֗יךָ לְמִן־הַיּוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁר֩ בָּרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אָדָם֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּלְמִקְצֵ֥ה הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְעַד־קְצֵ֣ה הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם הֲנִֽהְיָ֗ה כַּדָּבָ֤ר הַגָּדוֹל֙ הַזֶּ֔ה א֖וֹ הֲנִשְׁמַ֥ע כָּמֹֽהוּ׃
לג הֲשָׁ֣מַֽע עָם֩ ק֨וֹל אֱלֹהִ֜ים מְדַבֵּ֧ר מִתּוֹךְ־הָאֵ֛שׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַ֥עְתָּ אַתָּ֖ה וַיֶּֽחִי׃
לד א֣וֹ ׀ הֲנִסָּ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֗ים לָ֠בוֹא לָקַ֨חַת ל֣וֹ גוֹי֮ מִקֶּ֣רֶב גּוֹי֒ בְּמַסֹּת֩ בְּאֹתֹ֨ת וּבְמוֹפְתִ֜ים וּבְמִלְחָמָ֗ה וּבְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמוֹרָאִ֖ים גְּדֹלִ֑ים כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם לְעֵינֶֽיךָ׃
לה אַתָּה֙ הָרְאֵ֣תָ לָדַ֔עַת כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה ה֣וּא הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ין ע֖וֹד מִלְבַדּֽוֹ׃
לו מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם הִשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ לְיַסְּרֶ֑ךָּ וְעַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ הֶרְאֲךָ֙ אֶת־אִשּׁ֣וֹ הַגְּדוֹלָ֔ה וּדְבָרָ֥יו שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃
לז וְתַ֗חַת כִּ֤י אָהַב֙ אֶת־אֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ וַיִּבְחַ֥ר בְּזַרְע֖וֹ אַחֲרָ֑יו וַיּוֹצִֽאֲךָ֧ בְּפָנָ֛יו בְּכֹח֥וֹ הַגָּדֹ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
לח לְהוֹרִ֗ישׁ גּוֹיִ֛ם גְּדֹלִ֧ים וַעֲצֻמִ֛ים מִמְּךָ֖ מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ לַהֲבִֽיאֲךָ֗ לָֽתֶת־לְךָ֧ אֶת־אַרְצָ֛ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
לט וְיָדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒ כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם מִמַּ֔עַל וְעַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ מִתָּ֑חַת אֵ֖ין עֽוֹד׃
32 You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth, from one end of heaven to the other: has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known?
33 Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?
34 Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
35 It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him.
36 From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; on earth He let you see His great fire; and from amidst that fire you heard His words.
37 And because He loved your fathers, He chose their heirs after them; He Himself, in His great might, led you out of Egypt,
38 to drive from your path nations greater and more populous than you, to take you into their land and assign it to you as a heritage, as is still the case.
39 Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.
  1. What are we to make of this text compared to the one before. What exactly is unique about our experience in history? What may not be so unique?
  2. What is the healthier approach to viewing the world, the approach of Amos or the approach of Devarim? Why?

4. Devarim 3

ח וַנִּקַּ֞ח בָּעֵ֤ת הַהִוא֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ מִיַּ֗ד שְׁנֵי֙ מַלְכֵ֣י הָאֱמֹרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן מִנַּ֥חַל אַרְנֹ֖ן עַד־הַ֥ר חֶרְמֽוֹן׃
ט צִידֹנִ֛ים יִקְרְא֥וּ לְחֶרְמ֖וֹן שִׂרְיֹ֑ן וְהָ֣אֱמֹרִ֔י יִקְרְאוּ־ל֖וֹ שְׂנִֽיר׃
י כֹּ֣ל ׀ עָרֵ֣י הַמִּישֹׁ֗ר וְכָל־הַגִּלְעָד֙ וְכָל־הַבָּשָׁ֔ן עַד־סַלְכָ֖ה וְאֶדְרֶ֑עִי עָרֵ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת ע֖וֹג בַּבָּשָֽׁן׃
יא כִּ֣י רַק־ע֞וֹג מֶ֣לֶךְ הַבָּשָׁ֗ן נִשְׁאַר֮ מִיֶּ֣תֶר הָרְפָאִים֒ הִנֵּ֤ה עַרְשׂוֹ֙ עֶ֣רֶשׂ בַּרְזֶ֔ל הֲלֹ֣ה הִ֔וא בְּרַבַּ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן תֵּ֧שַׁע אַמּ֣וֹת אָרְכָּ֗הּ וְאַרְבַּ֥ע אַמּ֛וֹת רָחְבָּ֖הּ בְּאַמַּת־אִֽישׁ׃
8 Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon—
9 Sidonians called Hermon Sirion, and the Amorites call it Senir—
10 all the towns of the Tableland and the whole of Gilead and Bashan as far as Salcah and Edrei, the towns of Og’s kingdom in Bashan.
11 Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!
  1. What is the purpose of telling us the different names that the extinct nations had for the Hermon? Or the Ammonite word for the Rephaim? What about the discussion of Og the king of Bashan?
  2. What argument could be made that these are irrelevant details? What are the fallacies of such an argument?

5. Sifre Devarim, ch. 37

ב אתה אומר בשבח ארץ ישראל הכתוב מדבר, או אינו אלא בשבח ארץ מצרים? תלמוד לומר: “וְחֶבְרוֹן שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים נִבְנְתָה לִפְנֵי צֹעַן מִצְרָיִם” (במדבר יג כב). מפני מה? שהיתה מקום מלכות, שכך הוא אומר: “כי היו בצוען שריו” (ישעיהו ל’ ד’).
ג וחברון מה היתה? פסולת של ארץ ישראל, שנאמר: “קִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן” (בראשית כג ב). והרי דברים קל וחומר: אם חברון פסולת ארץ ישראל, הרי היא משובחת ממשובחת של ארץ מצרים, שהיא משובחת מכל הארצות; קל וחומר לשבח של ארץ ישראל…
י כיוצא בו אומר (דברים ג) “צידונים יקראו לחרמון שריון” ובמקום אחר הוא אומר (דברים ד) “עד הר שיאון הוא חרמון”. נמצא קרוי ד’ שמות. וכי מה צורך לבאי העולם בכך? אלא שהיו ד’ מלכיות מתכתשות: זו אומרת יקרא על שמי, וזו אומרת יקרא על שמי. והלא דברים ק”ו: פסולת ארץ ישראל – ד’ מלכיות מתכחשות עליה; ק”ו לשבחה של א”י!
2. Is this praising the land of Israel or is it praising the land of Egypt? It teaches: “And Hebron was built seven years before Tso’an of Egypt.”(BeMidbar 13:22) Why? Because it was a place of kings, for thus it says, “for his officers are in Tso’an”.
3. And what was Hebron? The detritus of the Land of Israel, as it says, “Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron.”(Bereshit 23:2) And it is logical. If Hebron, the detritus of the Land of Israel is more praiseworthy than the most praiseworthy city in Egypt, which is the most praiseworthy of all of the lands, how much more so for the praiseworthy parts of the Land of Israel?…
10 And similarly it says, “The Sidonians called Hermon Sirion,”(Devarim 3:9) and in another place it says, “Until the Mount Si’on that is Hermon.”(Devarim 4:48) It turns out that it has four names. And why do the people of the world need this? Rather, four different kingdoms fought over it: This one said, ‘It will be named after me!’ and this one said, ‘It will be named after me!’ And it is logical: if the detritus of the Land of Israel has four kings fighting over it, how much more so the praiseworthy places! 
  1. According to this text, what is the purpose of telling us the ancient history of the Land of Israel? What kind of reaction is it trying to elicit from the reader?
  2. Why is it so important to build up the virtues of the Land of Israel compared to the other lands? What are the positives of this framing, what are the negatives?

6. Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 60b

אמר ר”ש בן לקיש
הרבה מקראות שראויין לשרוף והן הן גופי תורה
(דברים ב, כג) והעוים היושבים בחצרים עד עזה מאי נפקא לן מינה
מדאשבעיה אבימלך לאברהם (בראשית כא, כג) אם תשקור לי ולניני ולנכדי
אמר הקב”ה ליתו כפתורים ליפקו מעוים דהיינו פלשתים וליתו ישראל ליפקו מכפתורים
כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר (במדבר כא, כו) כי חשבון עיר סיחון מלך האמורי היא והוא נלחם במלך מואב וגו’ מאי נפקא מינה
דאמר להו הקב”ה לישראל (דברים ב, ט) אל תצר את מואב
אמר הקב”ה
ליתי סיחון ליפוק ממואב וליתו ישראל וליפקו מסיחון
והיינו דאמר רב פפא עמון ומואב טיהרו בסיחון
(דברים ג, ט) צידונים יקראו לחרמון שריון תנא שניר ושריון מהרי ארץ ישראל מלמד שכל אחד ואחד מאומות העולם הלך ובנה לו כרך גדול לעצמו והעלה לו על שם הרי ארץ ישראל ללמדך שאפילו הרי ארץ ישראל חביבין על האומות העולם 
Resh Lakish said, “There are many verses that appear worthy of burning but they themselves are actually the essence of the Torah.
“So, too, with the Avvim who dwelt in villages in the vicinity of Gaza,”(Devarim 2:23) what do we learn from this? Since Avimelech made Abraham swear, “…you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin”(Bereshit 21:23) God said, ‘Let the Caphtorim come and take it from the Avvim (who are the Philistines) and let Israel come and take it from the Caphtorim.’
Similarly, it says, “For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Emorites. And he made war on the king of Moab, etc.“(BeMidbar 21:26) what do we learn from this? Since God told the Israelites, “Do not harass the Moabites…”(Devarim 2:9) God said, ‘Let Sihon come and take [territory] from the Moabites and let the Israelites come and take it from Sihon. And this is what Rav Papa meant when he said, “Amon and Moav were purified by Sihon.”
“The Sidonians called Hermon Sirion…” It is taught: Senir and Sirion were named for the mountains of the Land of Israel. This teaches that all of the nations of the world went and built themselves a large city and named it after the mountains of the Land of Israel. This is to teach you that even the mountains of the Land of Israel are beloved to the nations of the world. 
  1. What is the general approach of the Talmud to the verses that describe the early settlement of the Land of Israel? What is this supposed to communicate to us about our own conquest of the land?
  2. How is the section on the names of the Hermon different from the analogous section in the Sifre? How is the message different about the Land of Israel?

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Live”, Untimely Meditations, 1874

“Incidentally, I despise everything which merely instructs me without increasing or immediately enlivening my activity.” These are Goethe’s words… this work is to set down why, in the spirit of Goethe’s saying, we must seriously despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury, because we lack what is still most essential to us and because what is superfluous is hostile to what is essential. To be sure, we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it… That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action… We wish to use history only insofar as it serves living…


Now, what purpose is served for contemporary man by the monumental consideration of the past, busying ourselves with the classics and rarities of earlier times? He derives from that the fact that the greatness which was once there at all events once was possible and therefore will really be possible once again. He goes along his path more bravely, for now the doubt which falls over him in weaker hours, that he might perhaps be wishing for the impossible, is beaten back from the field…


Nevertheless, to learn right away something new from the same example, how fleeting and weak, how imprecise that comparison would be! If the comparison is to carry out this powerful effect, how much of the difference will be missed in the process. How forcefully must the individuality of the past be wrenched into a general shape, with all its sharp corners and angles broken off for the sake of the correspondence!… monumental history will not be able to produce that full truthfulness. It will always bring closer what is unlike, generalize, and finally make things equal. It will always tone down the difference in motives and events, in order to set down the monumental effectus [effect], that is, the exemplary effect worthy of imitation, at the cost of the causae [cause]…


History belongs secondly to the man who preserves and honors, to the person who with faith and love looks back in the direction from which he has come, where he has been. Through this reverence he, as it were, gives thanks for his existence. While he nurtures with a gentle hand what has stood from time immemorial, he wants to preserve the conditions under which he came into existence for those who are to come after him. And so he serves life…

Antiquarian history knows only how to preserve life, not how to generate it. Therefore, it always undervalues what is coming into being, because it has no instinctive feel for it, as, for example, monumental history has. Thus, antiquarian history hinders the powerful willing of new things; it cripples the active man, who always, as an active person, will and must set aside reverence to some extent. The fact that something has become old now gives birth to the demand that it must be immortal, for when a man reckons what every such ancient fact, an old custom of his fathers, a religious belief, an inherited political right, has undergone throughout its existence, what sum of reverence and admiration from individuals and generations ever since, then it seems presumptuous or even criminal to replace such an antiquity with something new and to set up in opposition to such a numerous cluster of revered and admired things the single fact of what is coming into being and what is present.


… A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live… It is always a dangerous process, that is, a dangerous process for life itself. And people or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger… In the best case, we bring the matter to a conflict between our inherited customary nature and our knowledge, in fact, even to a war between a new strict discipline and how we have been brought up and what we have inherited from time immemorial. We cultivate a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that the first nature atrophies. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori [after the fact], out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended.

  1. Based on the texts we’ve seen so far, how might we  argue that learning the  history of other peoples or civilizations can help to alleviate the evils that Nietzsche sees in monumental and antiquarian history without resorting to breaking with and dissolving the  past?
  2. How do the texts we’ve seen above suggest that history can be used to our advantage? What are the risks that we run when we attempt to use history? What risks do we run when we refuse to use it?