Nothing new under the sun Not exactly

Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Isaiah 1:1-1:27

 

This week we begin Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. This portion also falls every year on the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, the day that we observe because of the destruction of the Second Temple. (This year, Tisha B’Av begins Wednesday, July 29 at sundown.)

Deuteronomy starts with Moses retelling the history of the people Israel during their wanderings. And Tisha B’Av, which commemorates a series of Jewish tragedies — most significantly the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 B.C.E. — points to how sad and hopeless history can appear.

Let me turn to a theme that is well illustrated by some material that I was reminded to by Rabbi Michael Gold. There are two views of history — the pagan view and the biblical view. The pagans, whether the ancient Greeks and Romans or the great religions of the East, viewed history as a great cycle. Everything returns once again. In the long run, nothing ever changes.

Professor of religion Mircea Eliade wrote the classical book on this subject, “The Myth of the Eternal Return.” On humanity in primitive societies, Eliade writes: “For him things repeat themselves for ever and nothing new happens under the sun.”

In his attack on Jewish and Christian morality, the influential philosopher Frederick Nietzsche also spoke about eternal return. Nietzsche longed to recreate the heroic mindset of the ancient Greeks. He attacked what he called the slave mentality of the Bible. The world, like nature, must always come back to where it started. Once a slave, always a slave; nothing can ever truly change.

The Bible presents a radically different view of history. History has a direction. The Israeli biblical scholar  Yehezkiel Kaufman believed that the ancient Israelites were the beginning of a biblical continuum that evolved through the time of the ancient prophets.

The world will not return to what it was. Slaves can go free. (That is the main message of the Passover festival.) The world can be made into a better place. Suffering in the past does not automatically point to suffering in the future. We humans can transform the world.

This view of history grew out of the Bible and became central to both Jewish and Christian thinking. If history is not a cycle but a line, it creates a totally different outlook.

The clash between these two worldviews — history as a cycle versus history as a line — has affected how humans see themselves in Western civilization. It has even affected scientists. Albert Einstein, when he worked out his superb theory of general relativity, realized that the equations point to an expanding universe — in other words, a universe that is constantly changing. Einstein preferred to see the universe as static and unchanging — more of a cycle than a line. So he added a constant to his equations, the cosmological constant, to avoid an expanding universe.

Later, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. In 1931 Einstein met with Hubble, who took him up Mount Wilson in Southern California (at that time the location of one of the largest telescopes in the world) to see for himself the evidence that the universe is expanding. Einstein then famously remarked that his cosmological constant was the biggest blunder of his life.

Even the universe has a direction; it does not simple recycle itself. How much more so human history! Because Jewish history has been filled with pain and suffering, does that mean pain and suffering are inevitable in the future? Are Jews simply born to suffer for eternity?

There is a legend that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. (If anyone has a baby on July 29 or 30, let me know.) Perhaps the legend means that even the sadness contains the roots of hope. A much brighter future will grow out of a difficult present. We as Jews believe that history has a direction and the future will be better than the past.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.