History and time are often conceptualized as linear constructs moving in one direction, where time is a straight shot to the future which drives history further and further into the shadows of the past. The past, present, and future are seen as separate variables with an invisible barrier marking what was, what is, and what will be.
What if, though, the past, present, and future weren’t disconnected? What if they were all part of each other, overlapping in ways unseen?
It was Albert Einstein who wrote: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion.” Human minds generally conceptualize time and history as a linear sequence, where the past, present and future are rigid, measurable variables on the timeline. But Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of all time, recognized that this isn’t necessarily true; the division is a façade. Rather, the variables of time are a conglomerate, they are one.
In other words, we don’t simply live in the time we’re born into, our footprints on this earth aren’t just mere shapes in a fresh layer of soil, they are a result of millennia upon millennia of those who walked before us; and our world today is a reflection of their worlds. Our ancestors’ worlds live inside ours.
Think of it like a Russian doll. A Russian doll on the surface seems hollow, complete, and surface-level. But inside lives tinier reflections of itself. Each layer is bound together in space, and is inseparable through time. They are eternally connected.
The same goes with history. Time can seem surface-level, the present is fresh, it’s new. But inside are layers of the past that live inside the present.
So, if history isn’t linear, and variables of time are a figment of imagination, what then, is history?
History is the combination of what was, what is, and what will be. Every single event, person, idea that has existed is directly connected to the present and the future. It’s all one. And as the world carries the weight of generations past, so too do we carry the weight of ancestors past.
Our existence is extremely multi-faceted and rooted in stories, lives, and places we cannot consciously recall; knowing one’s history, though, delves inside the deepest depths of the soul, connecting the subconscious with the conscious. History amplifies identity, and figuring out identity is the prerequisite to finding one’s place within the world. That is how history and identity are interrelated, and this article will offer five ways of thinking about history to foster a rich, fulfilling Jewish identity.
1. History Is Part of Us
Often students in school detest history classes because it feels like a race to see who can memorize old facts and dates like the year George Washington became president or who fought in the Peloponnesian War. History feels archaic, random, irrelevant.
The life we are born into isn’t “hollow”, it isn’t a “clean slate” (picture the Russian doll – where layers exist underneath the surface). Rather, we’re born into a world with baggage – filled with love, conflict, prosperity, recession, war, peace, hope, aspirations. Everything that came before, in some way, effects our life as we know it. In adolescence and young adulthood when people embark on the wobbly journey of figuring out identity, it’s important to remember that not only are we a result of our own experiences, but of previous historical events and the paths of our ancestors. The more we unpack those, the more tools we have in our possession to understand who we are within this world and what is our responsibility to it.
So, fostering identity – specifically, Jewish identity – comes through unpacking your personal story, the story of your ancestors, and the story of the world.
It creates this triple Venn Diagram of historical responsibility to self (personal history), group (Jewish history), and whole (world history).
The task of each Jew is to find out what the overlaps are. What are the overlaps between fulfilling personal aspirations, fulfilling the aspirations of our ancestors, and being a member of this world? What is my role, and how do I actualize it? These questions can only be answered through picking up a history book or two.
2. Recognizing Purpose – We are not happenstance.
Uncoincidentally, the definition of history provided here as “what was, is, and will be” is the same meaning of one of G-d’s names in Hebrew. One of the ways G-d’s name is written is “Yud – Hay – Vav – Hay”, an unutterable word often pronounced as “Adonai.” The letters in this word form conjugations of the verb “to be” and means, “He who was, is, and will be.” By this definition then, history is not just a series of unrelated events that occurred, but it is the story of the Universe. History is destiny, and it is One – and each one of us plays a significant role in its making.
So, not only are we each an active part in history, but history is also an active part in who we are, or who we’re meant to be. Studying it and knowing it can lead us to a greater sense of purpose.
3. History Taps into the Soul – The Spiritual Element of Being
History is, at its core, mystical. It is other-worldly in that it unites distant worlds, it unites the spiritual and the physical.
This explains why a historical event that one did not even live through can reverberate the soul in the deepest of ways. Someone who did not live through the Holocaust, or slavery, or the establishment of the State of Israel, can have such a strong, emotional attachment to those events. Unlived events can motivate and drive humans stronger than anything they’ve lived through. Why? Because we are spiritual beings with souls that are beyond the physical world. History resonates through time, space, and matter. And an event our ancestors experienced continues through our existence.
The word resonance is defined as vibrations in one body or system caused by waves from another. This isn’t just true for the concept of sound, but for all art forms. If you’ve ever read something that caused you to feel physical pain or nausea or heartache, that’s resonance. Reading/thinking about historical events can penetrate the body and cause vibrations in the soul. History unites the past and present, the physical and spiritual; it guides us as we search for purpose.
Stephen King, in his book, “On Writing”, referred to writing as: “telepathy, of course” (he also stated this holds true for all forms of art, but unsurprisingly, he holds a slight prejudice toward the significance of writing). What this means is that when we read or hear a primary source (a letter, diary, newspaper, book, manuscript, artifact, picture, oral story, etc.) from the past, it gives insight into the ideas, feelings, concerns, and lifestyle of people that lived before us. These sources tell us what humans no longer with us cannot. The sources connect our world to theirs. Through analysis and interpretation of these sources, seemingly distant history is humanized and felt on a more personal level. This is why writing, storytelling, and other art forms are telepathic.
And if there were ever a people that knew the importance of writing and storytelling, it’s the Jews.
4. Collective Memory – We are Reflections of Our Past.
Written documents may ensure remembrance, but living memory ensures resonance…We are the ‘People of the Book’ not just because we have a book, but because we keep the book alive.
Memory keeps things alive. Memory is calling upon past events (“what was”), which reside in the minds of an individual (“what is”), and therefore effect the thoughts and actions of that individual (“what will be”). People, places, events, they never really are gone if they live on in the minds of others.
For Jews, memory is a cornerstone of identity. Written documents may ensure remembrance, but living memory ensures resonance. It takes both. We are the “People of the Book” not just because we have a book, but because we keep the book alive. We are living, breathing reflections of those who received it on Har Sinai. From generation to generation, from parent to child, we pass on memories of ancestors, recalling their stories, reciting passages from ancient texts, and ensuring that time never feels linear. One of the greatest Jewish premises is that through every point in time, no matter how many generations have passed, it is the parents job to ensure that our children continue to resonate with the past. As it says in the Torah, “And you explain to your child on that day: ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
Jewish books aren’t just piled on bookshelves in homes, but they are opened up, read, recalled, embodied, and applied. Each year we pull out Megillat Esther, and recall our ancestors plight in Persia, and the heroism of Queen Esther. Each year we pull out Aichah and lament the destruction of our Holy Temples, ensuring that the pain resonates and reverberates the Jewish soul. Each year we pull out the Haggadah, and remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Not only do we read the story, but we experience it through the food we eat and the Seder. It’s what the Torah tells us to do: “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, and יהוה freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten.”
Jewish tradition is to embody memory physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Why do we do this?
We do this because it gives us perspective. It allows us to zoom out on the moment in time, and recognize that we are part of a larger story, that we do indeed have a history and a destiny. It teaches us gratitude and humility toward our Creator, for no other peoples have survived what we have. In the best and most prosperous of times, we remember our downfalls, and in the worst and darkest of times, we remember our purpose and our ideals. Memory keeps us on track and reminds us that what our ancestors went through shall not be in vain.
5. Zooming Out – Embracing Jewish Identity
It takes only a moment to zoom out on Jewish history to see that the Jewish story is unlike any other. The existence and survival of the Jewish people has been one that has perplexed the minds of many, as per the famous quote by Mark Twain: “The Jew saw them all, beat them all…All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.”
Perhaps, memory is precisely why we are still here. Jews have always fought to remember, to light the candle for the next generation, to never let the fires and passions for Israel extinguish in vain. All it takes is one tiny spark.
We are the only ones to have revived our language unspoken for centuries, to have retained ways of dress and lifestyle after our long exile, and to have successfully returned to our homeland after thousands of years. Even upon death, Jews turn to memory by reciting the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is G-d, the Lord is One”). Why? Because in the most dire moments, we remember who we are. We zoom out, and remember that the Universe is beyond us, there is a plan beyond our comprehension, that our identity is forever bound with our story.
It was Bob Proctor, the self-help author and lecturer, who said, “A person is successful if they know who they are, they know where they’re going, and they’re progressively moving in that direction.” As a human, knowing the story of the world helps to interact with it; but as a Jew, knowing our story helps us find our place within it. In his book, “A Letter in the Scroll”, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Z”L, said it well:
“I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.”
This article might leave the reader with more questions than answers, but questioning is precisely the start to finding purpose and cultivating identity. It’s a rewarding journey to embark upon, and it’s a universal call that each person is faced with in their lives. The individual journey of embracing Jewish identity can begin with the simple, humbling question: “How did I get here?”
King, Stephen. “On Writing.” New York, New York, Scribner Edition, 2010.
Kline, George L. “‘Present’, ‘Past’, and ‘Future’ as Categoreal Terms, and the ‘Fallacy of the Actual Future.’” The Review of Metaphysics 40, no. 2 (1986): 215–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20128450.
Proctor, Bob. “Do You Know Who You Are?” Posted by: Proctor Gallagher Institute. Accessed from: Do You Know who You Are? | Bob Proctor – YouTube
Sacks, Jonathan. “A Letter in the Scroll.” Free Press, 2004.
Sefaria. “Exodus.” accessed from: https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus