After stopping at the day care center, Jeff and his wife gave me a ride home from work in their blue, four-door Honda. As we darted through rush hour traffic, I sat in the back left next to the car seat, cooing and making assorted exaggerated faces at their nine-month old baby.
After stopping at the day care center, Jeff and his wife gave me a ride home from work in their blue, four-door Honda. As we darted through rush hour traffic, I sat in the back left next to the car seat, cooing and making assorted exaggerated faces at their nine-month old baby. To my dismay, the baby was unimpressed with my imaginative faces. I had obviously underestimated his intellectual capacity, and instead of imitating me as I expected, he stared back with a blank look of, "What's with this guy?"
Jeff ponderously viewed my extraordinary facial expressions through the rear-view mirror, but quickly realized that they were not aimed at him. He restarted our conversation about family genealogy. "Somehow I became the official family historian," Jeff told me. "I collect pictures, oral histories, all that neat stuff. In fact, this Sunday I am interviewing my grandmother's brother's wife for our project. She is in her nineties. It is certainly a unique opportunity to which I have given a lot of thought recently - she probably can tell me all about the life of my great-great grandparents. Isn't that amazing?" he asked.
The thought struck me as amazing indeed. For a few moments my mind drifted and I stared blankly through the driver-side head rest, contemplating the prospect that by talking to people just two generations my senior I have access to over 170 years of history. Still staring, I responded, "Yes, it really is amazing."
As I brought my thoughts to a close, my eyes wandered from the head rest to the baby - for a tiny tot, he sure had a knack for making me look stupid. Uninterested in our conversation, he was staring inquisitively at that same driver-side head rest, curious why I had found the inanimate blue thing behind Daddy's head so captivating for the past 20 seconds.
Little did Jeff's baby realize the implications of our conversation. Beyond satisfying a sentimental curiosity, even beyond fulfilling an academic desire to document our unique contribution to world history, the preservation of Jewish history carries with it a significant theological message.
In this week's Torah portion, as the Jewish people await entry into Israel, a hostile land inhabited by hostile pagans, Moses warns them that their survival depends upon Hashem's constant sustenance; naturally, if the Jews succumb to idol worship and abandon Him, Hashem will remove His protection. The Torah records Moses' warning: "When you have children and grandchildren and have been established in the land for a long time, you might become decadent and make a statue of some image, and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem. . .you will quickly perish from the land" (Deuteronomy 4:25-6). As a further consequence, Hashem will scatter the Jews among the nations of the world.
Why does this particular transgression entail such immediate, severe consequences for the Jews? The answer lies four verses later. Moses emphasizes that the Jewish people were the only nation to experience a revelation from Hashem. Pay careful attention to the Torah's choice of words: "You might inquire about times long past. . .Has any nation ever heard Hashem speaking from the midst of fire, as you have heard. . .Or has any god ever done miracles bringing one nation out from amidst another nation with such tremendous miracles, signs, and wonders. . .as Hashem did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?" (ibid. 4:32-3).
The Ramban, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, explains that having experienced the exodus and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, Jews have an even greater responsibility to maintain their belief in Hashem. And not coincidentally, the statement of this responsibility is couched in terms of a historical inquiry. That is because Jewish historical continuity, in its most elementary form, makes up the backbone for our belief in the exodus and revelation.
The Torah describes that the first Passover Seder took place on the night of the exodus from Egypt itself. Every year since then, Jewish families across the world have fulfilled the command to conduct a Seder recounting the miracles of the exodus. Present in body at most Seders are at least three generations of Jews. The youngest generation, often grandchildren, recites the four questions to the oldest generation, often their grandparents. Then the grandparents respond by reviewing the major defining moments in Jewish history, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
When we analyze the Seder experience, we see that it serves as much more than an annual family reunion - for the grandparents can testify that they asked the same questions of their grandparents who gave them the same answers, and that their grandparents had asked the same of their grandparents, and so on and so forth. . .until we realize that in truth, present at this gathering are the collective testimonies of all of this family's predecessors from time immemorial. In commanding us to conduct a Passover Seder, Hashem implemented a system that serves as a powerful proof to the validity of the events which it stands to recall.
This is the force of Moses' speech to the Jews in its context of Jewish history. "You might inquire about times long past. . . ." It is possible for a charismatic, convincing individual to recruit followers by claiming that he personally experienced a revelation from Hashem, even if his claim is false. But Moses reminds the Jewish people that we make a much bolder claim: An entire nation heard Hashem speak at Sinai. The mere existence of this claim bolsters its own validity: The Jewish world population has never fallen below one million, and there exists no point in history when it would have been feasible to introduce the story of the exodus and convince an entire nation that they and their parents have always known about that revelation. This is the message that Jewish history hammers home every Passover.
The blue Honda Accord pulled into my driveway. I gave Jeff's baby a mature smile and realized that, despite his attitude, at nine months and growing, he was the next link in our grand chain of history.
Yosef Rodbell, a third-generation Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a rising senior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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