Stephen Jay Gould, that eccentric genius of genus and geology, provided me with a wonderful hiddush (a new insight) as I leafed through the first pages of his book Time as a Cycle, Time as an Arrow. If one were to ask me to name the greatest contribution of the Jewish people to Western thought (or to humanity, for that matter), I would blurt out with almost cheerleader enthusiasm: ethical monotheism. Or perhaps that distinction should go to the Tanach as a literary and spiritual masterpiece.
Dr. Gould maintains that a scientist would respond just as enthusiastically if somewhat differently. A scientist, he says, would point to the idea of time as an arrow. He then, and somewhat apologetically, launches into a brief description of the conflicting metaphors for time that serve as a title for his book. This paradigm seems so obvious and overworn to Dr. Gould that it is in danger of becoming trite. For me, it lead to a stunning hiddush, which I will briefly share.
Up until very recent times, human cultures have perceived time almost exclusively in terms of a cycle. The cycle of time provides structure and predictability. It also provides meaning. In an ultimate and cosmic sense, your knew your place in history
During the Middle Ages – even before, even after – the Jew was always able to opt out of Jewish destiny, either by conversion or by assimilation. Most Jews did not – they had signed on the dotted line, they had bought into thebrit. And so when disasters came, they already saw themselves in a cycle of time, which, if not always pleasant, at least guaranteed the immortality that comes with a deep past (and that implies as deep a future). We Jews, as the greatest of deep past people, already have seen and lived several cycles. (Odd and inconsistent that as individuals, we are keenly aware of the cycles that we go through during our own lives, but as nations, we do not perceive our cyclical past so well. Some nations do it better than others [I’d wager the Chinese do it well], but the Jews are masters of this.) We have been around so long and the idea of cyclical history is so built in to our national myth, that we are even conscious of a subtle but perceptible arrow, not just a cycle. Our perspective enables us to perceive and interpret not just the single cycle, but the span of multiple cycles, and in doing so we become conscious that the cycles do not simply follow the same otwo-dimensional track. Each cycle gently spirals over the last, mapping it, repeating its revolution, yet not identical. We have a sense of the arrow, the vectoral aspect of repetition, the coil of a spiral. And that arrow brings us towards redemption.
The arrow and the cycle are our comfort and our meaning. For even if one found one’s self in the downward curve of oppression and exile and massacre, one knew from the past that our people and our Torah would survive even this tragedy. That’s what the past promised: this knowledge, even in death, that suffering has a meaning, that every act of kiddush Hashem pushes the cycle closer towards redemption.
An essential element of the cycle we’ve lived during the Middle Ages (even before, even after), is our choice to be a part of it. In every time and place, the Jew could have always elected to divorce himself from the Jewish historical destiny. The Church was always there with open arms, willing to accept Jewish converts as proof of the rightness of their faith. The astounding fact is not the numbers who chose that path, but the overwhelming majority who did not. Jews who knew they could preserve their lives and those of their families through the sacrament of Baptism, instead chose the blade or the bullet. And the fact that Jews were faced with this choice, even if it were a foregone conclusion, as it was in most cases, was the essence of sanctifying Hashems’s name that drove the cycle along the arrow.
But then here comes the Holocaust, and we see that the rules have taken a radical, unforeseen twist; there’s a break in the pattern. During the Holocaust, the Jew had no way to escape the inevitable destiny of being Jewish. This is more than just making the game more dangerous, it entails a basic rewriting of the rules in mid-game. It’s a unique thing, a new phenomenon. If there is no choice between the brit and the bullet, then where is the kiddush hashem in all these deaths? The Germans dished out the same fate to faithful and faithless alike, to the returnee along with the rebellious. And perhaps, just perhaps, this suffering is not kiddush hashem at all, but just plain, senseless suffering. The cycle of meaning has been broken and whoosh! we are riding that arrow, perhaps toward redemption , perhaps not. There is no comforting cycle to catch our fall. The future is unseen and unforeseeable.
That’s why the Holocaust is unique, that’s why it’s scary. We are confronted with the possibility that there is an end that does not include redemption. And if that is so, then our past of suffering has been robbed of its meaning. Suffering without meaning implies a world without meaning, and a world without meaning is not a world worth living in.
So enter, the State of Israel. The creation of the State provides us the opportunity to see the Holocaust in a different light. No longer are we talking about the fatal yet familiar pattern of devastation and rejuvenation, but rather the meta-cycle of cosmic destruction and creation, of the exodus from Egypt and of entering the Land of Israel, of the destruction of the Temple and the return to Zion. This is why the politics of this country, which really should be no more than normal small-country politics, seem so warped and forced from the outsider’s objective view. The pure and impure characterize daily life here, the air roils with the whorls of the forces of evil and holiness. Cosmic forces are intertwined here, and that is both dangerous and exhilarating.
We play for high stakes, here in the land of Israel. Never doubt it, never forget it. Life is simply different here.