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When History Began

When History Began

. . . and why we need to know

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Many problems of history are discussed at Chabad.org, some bigger than others. The big problem, however, has yet to be discussed. In fact, it is rarely discussed at all.

The big problem of history is, “Why is there any history at all?”

No, I don’t mean, “Why was anything recorded?” Neither do I mean, “Why did anything ever happen that should be recorded?”

What I mean in this question by “history” is what you might call the storiology of history—that history presents itself to us in the form of a story or a novel. That it seems to be composed of unique events in time that created watersheds, points beyond which there could never be a return to the previous state. It seems to have a plot, progressing towards some destiny in a series of conflict and resolution. It appears to have themes which unravel over time.

I also mean “history” in the sense of a particular theme. In telling the narrative of history, there are many themes that stand out for the modern mind: the advance of technology and science; the formation and metamorphoses of nations and empires; the development of ideas, art, music, literature and culture. But, for most of us, one theme stands beyond all others, and perhaps at the core of each of the above. That is the story of the significance of the individual within society.

To us, history is the story of the resolution between society and the individual.

This was the theme of history to which Francis Fukuyama was referring when, in 1992, he published his now classic End of History and the Last Man. Because this is the idea of history to which Hegel and those who built upon his work referred. History, in the minds of these great thinkers, is the story of humankind moving to attain a kind of equilibrium between society and the individual, one in which neither is at odds with the other, but rather complement and enrich one another. One in which society is constructed in such a way as to encourage, enhance and enrich the freedom and utmost expression of the potential of the individual, while the freedom of the individual in turn enriches the society as a whole.

To Fukuyama, this is liberal, capitalist democracy, and its resolution arrived with the fall of the Berlin Wall. To us today, it is what we are still striving to fully realize in our own societies, and hoping to see realized through the uprising of the “Arab Spring” and similar upheavals in the Far East. The question of “why is there any history at all” has become more relevant today than at any other time, because the answer itself may contain the key to the true resolution upon whose threshold we stand.

It wasn’t always this way

So why does the story of humankind seem to move forward? Around us, we see cycles, events repeated again and again. The sun, the moon, and all the planets move steadily in their orbits. Here on Earth, life is born, grows, withers and dies. It bursts forth in the spring, thrives in the summer, declines in the autumn and sleeps through the winter, only to be revived once again in the spring. What happened in human history that gave it this arrow and pointed it in a certain direction, breaking out of the cycle and entropy of nature?

History was not always seen this way. For most of history, the idea of history was an anathema, even horrifying. To the wise men of Sumeria, Athens, India or China, the idea of an anomalous event, one that would change everything herefrom, was utter nonsense. What is, was, and what was, will be again. A movement of progress forward, breaking out of that cycle, seemed counter-intuitive for most of humanity, most of the time. It was not until quite recently, especially in the latter half of the seventeenth century, that the Western mind began to think in terms of this narrative of history—and not until the nineteenth century that it began to dominate the way we think of all things.

Intuitively, there should be no history at all.

Where did it come from, and from where did it originate?

Many scholars attribute the idea of history to the ancient Hebrews (that’s us). They point out the anomalous structure of the Bible when compared to other ancient texts. Heroes such as Abraham, Joseph or Moses don’t appear in some mythical time, but as fixed points, as figures that effected a new state of the world that propelled future events in a defined direction. Because of the story of Abraham and his covenant with G‑d, the story of Joseph and his brothers takes on a much deeper meaning than a story of jealousy. Without that covenant in which Abraham was told that his children would be “strangers in a land that does not belong to them,” the story of the Exodus makes little sense. Everything moves in a certain direction, towards the Promised Land, a land which is never fully attained, so that the story continues on until this day.

Scholars see the Bible as a radical break from the cyclical concept of time.

Such a form of storytelling seems natural to us. And yet, the historical novel is a genre that does not appear until the nineteenth century. The Bible was truly a unique work in this regard for some three thousand years.

In The Twitter Revolution I espoused the idea that the phonetic alphabet was largely responsible for this idea of history, since it forces the human mind to think in linear terms. But that’s not enough. Phonetics (as I point out in that essay) were available before the Five Books of Moses were written—it was only that the social context did not allow for their development. And plenty of nations who adopted phonetic alphabets developed a linear approach to solving problems, and yet did not carry that linear approach into their understanding of history, society, or the theme of human rights within society.

An alternative answer

So when was this particular arrow placed upon the dimension of time and history? How and when did it occur?

Hegel has his answers, quite consonant with his times and heritage. I’m just a little guy, but I would like to present my own:

Human progress, in its most general sense, began when people began to preserve seeds from one year to the next. In other words, when they connected their past in a very practical way to their future. Out of that connection emerged something new: settlement, and eventually, civilization.

History in the sense that we are speaking of also began when a foreseen future came into conflict with a preserved past, at which point a resolution, something entirely new and irreversible, emerged.

It was a little over 3,300 years ago. The Children of Israel are entering the land promised to their forefathers. They must remain the same entity—the Children of Israel, scions of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they must transform into a national entity, with sovereignty over a land.

The two roles are in head-on conflict. The experience of the forefathers was a deeply personal one. It was a spiritual relationship. Conquering and populating a country is a mass phenomenon, usually directed by a leader ruthless both to his enemy and to his own people. In what way would the settlement of Canaan not lead to yet another Egypt? What would prevent history from turning back in on itself, in the repetitive cycle described by all the sages of the ancient world?

What prevented the Promised Land from being just another Egypt?

Past and future were now in conflict. The present was torn between them. The very sense of historicity of these people, of their ties to the past and their promised destiny of the future, demanded resolution.

That resolution came in the form of something that had never been done before: a covenant of the people with the G‑d of their ancestors.

Covenants, indeed, were common fare in that world. Abraham made a covenant with Mamre and with Abimelech, as did Isaac with the Abimelech of his day. Jacob made a covenant with Laban. In that part of the world, minor city-state kings would make covenants with more powerful rulers in their neighborhood. “We pay tribute to you; you protect us in return.”

But a covenant with the people? What are people but servants of the king?

Yet that is just what happened. Moses brokered a deal for the people: You choose G‑d. G‑d chooses you. You will be His people, a holy people, like your forefathers were His people, and He will protect you and give you the land He promised to them.

A covenant with the people means that the people have responsibilities as individuals. It also means that they have rights as individuals. Unheard of at that time, each individual was granted title to his own parcel of land. Each individual of the covenant had equal rights before the law. Each individual had obligations towards the general society, and the general society had obligations to protect the wellbeing and rights of that individual. (On this topic, please see Did Human Rights Begin With Torah? Also vital reading: Is Democracy Jewish?)

It’s my belief that this was the point where history began, the launching pad from which progress towards equal rights for all members of society took off.

How relevant is this?

If I’m right, there’s something very significant to consider: Progress does not occur through rejection of the past, but by striving to create resolution with it. Rejection of the past leads simply to more cyclical repetition of movement and decay, without ever attaining anything new.

Indeed, this is the process of science, as we know it over the past few hundred years: an accumulative process, whereby new observations and ideas must be resolved within the context of the library of confirmed knowledge until that point. The great advancers of science, Newton and Einstein, were strong classicists. Einstein especially: his genius was not just his innovation, but his ability to solve the quandaries of his time with radically new ideas that simultaneously preserved classic Newtonian mechanics.

Leaving behind the past means its inevitable return. Progress occurs by preserving the seeds of the past.

It seems to me that this is a repetitive theme in Jewish history. It occurred again at the time that we chose our first king; at the time of the Babylonian exile and subsequent return; in dramatic terms at the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. It is occurring again today, as we grapple with our place as a people in a rapidly progressing world.

There is so much more to write. In the meantime, I would be fascinated in hearing some thoughtful responses to this idea.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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joshua covarrubias cancun July 22, 2015

So to answer directly to your question my answer would be banking, since banking turns the physical world into abstract values, elevating the physical into the abstract, and returning those abstract values into the physical world through economic growth. .Banking systems connect the individual to the community binding them into a single entity. It binds the virtual worlds of thought, to the ever changing world of action. These are all functions of the 6th day of the creative week and the Yesod. Not to our surprise the bull, which is the symbol of the tribe of Yosef who is called the Tzaddik is actually the wall street symbol for growth and financial dissemination of wealth. By this notion the two notions of self, both the individual self and the collective self are joined much like words are joined into a collective thought . And as Yosef was liberated from the prison he was in, may the full light of the Tzaddik be finally liberated into this world speedily and in our days. Reply

joshua covarrubias cancun July 22, 2015

the relationship between the individual and the community shines light also in this area from the fact that a person as an individual naturally sees his life as story. And a person is a fractal of the whole of humanity. So the presence of such consciousness was always latent to say the least. The idea of the community as an extension of oneself then would seem to transmit the awareness of self and the idea of the community as having a common self and thus a common history. This is the idea expressed in the gemara Taanit 5b, Yaakov Avinu never died. Yesod is the 6th day, and expresses the idea of fractal transmition as the Tzaddik as a conduit of the bracha, bcs it shows that the Creator is to be found in each creation. The part and the whole are united in the 6th day through our global mindframe and our almost biological world economy that truly shows humanity as one single being. So can the true Tzaddik please stand up? Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca May 6, 2014

Civilizations come and go. I wonder what people will think about us in the historical years that follow. I would love to live on Mars and celebrate Shavuot. What craters and mountains we could climb and recite The Ten Commandments. What a greater way to improve science and space time. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 5, 2011

re: Time (For clarification the five human perceptions for me are Form; Perception; Sensation; Activity and Consciousness.)
Everything arises from That Which is Eternal and falls back into it, no separation, all is One. I think if one looks closely at all the things which come into being as time passes, one can see that they are a manifestation of Compassion - the very essence of Love. When we are tuned into this we express our true nature, when we get caught in time we see ourselves as separate and we become fearful, so we cling to things and loose sight of the unity which binds us. To realise this once is not enough one must go on and on continually realising the Oneness. Time gives us the opportunity to do this - how marvolous is Creation!!! Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma September 5, 2011

time is an illusion What is written above, about time, does embrace the paradox. We are aware of the passage of what we call time, experiencing change, as in growth and development (s) at all levels. And yet we can only "hold" time in memory and capture the moving moment on film, in a photo. It feels elusive. And yet the knowledge that all is one as so beautifully expressed also tells us that what we separate out, beginnings, middle and ends, the very words for time (past present future)
collapse towards each other. It is a conundrum. Like an elastic in metaphor that is stretched and let go.

We have the "hands" of time and like matter we can divide time into the nano and beyond. There is a One ness to this and I see a far far Greater Hand. No, not the blind watchmaker. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 5, 2011

Time Malkah - interesting what you say about prayer and concentration revealing past present and future as one with the Divine - which is why I posed the question - "What is "now"?" However as you suggest, linear time still exists at the same time through the 5 human perceptions otherwise how could we live on this world? The realisation that the 5 senses are in fact empty of separate self is paramount to understanding the true nature of things and to the full expression of our compassion, love and wisdom, perhaps what you are meaning by the unified world? Reply

Anonymous September 5, 2011

Malkah Sept 4, 2011 You introduce a marvelous concept. That is the treatment of time. Each unit of time, every second, can be elevated. If one makes this realization, it is more possible to live a more refined life, moment to moment. Personally, i do not aim at depth, such as the fusion of past present and future. No doubt it is more spiritual, but for now i like the basics of learning Torah and doing mitzvot as constantly as possible and let the chips fall as they may. All things being equal, the chips should fall in a positive pattern more often than not. This itself is not a bad goal. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 4, 2011

Stonehenge Druids didn't build it, they came MUCH later.
Yes history is SO seductive, especially if we can be right, ummmm...? Reply

Malkah Uk September 4, 2011

Ancient intelligence Time is an illusion and part of this fallen reality of seperation. to experience the Divine is to experience past present and future as one. To exclude one is to experiential of this fallen dimension. To begin to glean this we must remember that we a like a box with 5 ways of experiencing the world - touch smell sight sound taste, when we begin to develop the siXth sense we can begin to approach the unified world. How do we do this? Torah and mitzvot - try expeiencing prayer with total concentration and you will begin to see time elevated so that past present and future are one Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma September 4, 2011

Stonehenge These are modern day astronomers and scientists, and they look at Stonehenge as a computer because it IS. You are wrong. Man has puzzled over Stonehenge for years, and thought this was primarily a place of worship, but recent discovery and it is astounding does show it's a very powerful computer, and that the placement of holes and stones is totally EXACT and does totally predict eclipses and where they happen around the world.

It's one thing to believe what you want, but it is another thing to read what the scientists, are saying, and about their mathematics This is not soft science. This is "real". Not a hunch.

Belief changes when knowledge steps in, and we have knowledge today we did not have of yesterday. Why should this be a problem? It seems to me it enhances the wonder and gives us more to, ponder. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 1, 2011

ancient intelligence It is tempting to look at ancient man's designs through modern eyes. Why would they think of stonehenge as a computor? How can we ever know just what they thought or guess what their motivations were. It is all supposition. I think they were intelligent and had to be to survive.
I believe stonehenge is built on a confluence of lay lines but I don't know much about it. I once had an aquaintance who was a modern day Druid and took part in the midsummer solstice rituals there but very little is known of the druids through archeology. One thing I do know, the now we live today creates the future we live tomorrow; history is fcinating but awfully distracting. If the Truth is accesible to us at all, I get a hunch it must be in the present moment where life is happening now. To be fully aware in this moment is to know the Divine right now. What is "now"? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 1, 2011

Au Bon Pain Thank you, anonymous. I so appreciate what you wrote.

There is this eatery, that seems ubiquitous in these parts, and it seems life is deeply about this, the agony and the ecstasy, and all the little in betweens, that constitute our lives. We deeply, need each other. This is how we recreate that Divine fire.

I see the name of this French bakery, and think about it, Pain being bread in French and hurt in English. Au bon pain. The good "pain". Could we have, the one, without, the other?

I cannot see life as created by Dawkins Blind Watchmaker. Everywhere I look, I see evidence to the contrary.

If this is not visible, then let others do what we all need to do, which is, however one views this question of Divinity, act in ways that heal. There is plenty that needs healing.

Whatever else and wherever else, can we find, meaning? Let it be awe. Really look at a sunflower. Read about Fibonnaci. Do science, And then experience, more awe.

Just say, AAH! Reply

Malkah Uk September 1, 2011

Actually all this is explained in the Torah. I learnt from a Kabbalist that Shlomo Hamelech's wisdom was wisdom at all levels ie esoteric as well, for example. We know from Torah sources that Jerusalem, specifically the foundation stone is the navel of the world. There are streams of energy that flow from there and go throughout the world. King Shlomo knew where all ther streams where and where they went. That is the secret of the gardens he planted, he would plant plants from a part of the world on that particular stream in yerushalaim and they flourished. the Druids who built stone henge originated from areas around isarael (Phoenicians) they knew something of these secrets and used dowsing methods to find intersecting energy streams. They were pagans and their attempts at creating a metaphysical instrument were fuelled from the darknside, remember they used human sacrifices there. One must be careful not to admire their knowledge it is trief. Torah has the kosher thing:-) Reply

Anonymous August 31, 2011

Julie - Stonehenge Aug 31 , 2011 Welcome aboard the ' r h Soul Train ' . It runs on a beautiful track through Magnificent scenery, continually changing.

There is just something about Ruth. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma August 31, 2011

discovery Hi Julie, This is much more complex than lay lines and dowsing. How did they know even that?We're talking about massive knowledge about calculations and this knowledge is highly technical, highly scientific, involving in depth astounding intelligence. One might ask, where does and where did this come from in ancient man?

I often wonder, in this highly specialized society what would happen If just several or one were left? What then? Who could single handedly recreate what we have?

I think the answer might be something to "divine". Reply

Julie Durham, UK August 31, 2011

stonehenge Good question Ruth. Is it something to do with lay lines and dowsing? One comes across people who are very sensitive to electrical currents and can't sleep with wires or electrical equipment in the room. Perhaps ancient man was more sensitive in this way, there wasn't much else to distract them; silence and the rhythms or nature. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma August 30, 2011

Astronomers write about Stonehenge The universe is very old, beyond the ken of those who like me have difficulty visualizing numbers in the billions. Science is teaching us something very deep and yet, these Biblical stories, about Adam and Eve, have deeo resonance, and amazing metaphoric connects. Could it be, more than one story running simultaneously? Surely HaShem can do anything.

Neolithic man created Stonehenge, a humungous Stone Computer. I am reading about this, that modern day astronomers and physicists are amazed and can predict, accurately, eclipses around the world, given the amazing location and construction of this astronomical observatory. How did THEY know how to do this?

Life is about discovery, and we are constantly learning more about the amazement. I see a timetable to discovery, and just maybe, this timetable is governed by a Divine Intelligence.

Tell me, how did these Neolithic people know to create such a powerful computer of stone, and in the exact, rare place on earth to construct it? Reply

Yochanan Ben-Yehadah August 29, 2011

Wonferful article. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 19, 2011

The only thing I can add is this... If you were there when history began, then you know the answer for sure. All of our answers are sheer guesses and opinions. Scientifically, history began in 6,000 BC when writing began. Before that it was called the Pre-historic era. In 2,000 BC, this was the beginning of the Classical era and some say History began there. If we think of history in terms of life itself, dinosaurs lasted 150 million years before people came into existence. So, did you mean history as far as PEOPLE goes or history as far as life, or the planet's origin, or what? Reply

Julie Durham, UK August 19, 2011

Wow Ruth Very interesting. Reply

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