Balaam is stopped by an angel while on his way to curse the Israelites, as in this week's Torah portion, from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles.
Balaam is stopped by an angel while on his way to curse the Israelites, as in this week's Torah portion, from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles.

Judaism’s revolutionary approach to history

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 22:2-25:9

Alan Lightman began his professional life as a physicist, blazing a path through Princeton, Harvard and, eventually, MIT. Somewhere along the way, his interests expanded from Einstein’s equations to “Einstein’s Dreams,” and his book of short stories by that name became an international bestseller. The book combines physics lessons with science fiction, and explores the year 1905, when Albert Einstein was developing the theory of relativity, which revolutionized the way we think about time. Einstein was so obsessed with the theory that he would dream about alternate worlds where time works differently.

Each chapter of “Einstein’s Dreams” offers up a new conception of time. In one, time passes more slowly at higher elevations, leading rich people to build their houses on mountaintops so they will live longer. In another, time is circular and repeating. In yet another, time moves ever more slowly, until in certain places it stops altogether.

Many of the chapters are mind-boggling; all of them are insightful. But what struck me after finishing the book was that the author had thought of every possible concept of time — except Jewish time.

We all know that Jews have a different concept of time: “Jewish Standard Time”. Everything starts 30 minutes late. Einstein once said: “I tried my whole life to come late to a Jewish meeting and I never succeeded.”

But kidding aside, Judaism has a revolutionary approach to time. It’s not surprising that Lightman missed it, but it would have added something vital to his book.

According to secular views of history, the past determines the future. Something happened last week or a decade ago and because of that, something will happen today, and that something today will cause something to happen tomorrow. The events of the past create the reality of the present. Everything is cause and effect. This is referred to as a deterministic perspective on history. Our present is already written in the events of the past.

The Jewish philosophy of history is different. Unlike secular history, what happens in the Jewish vision of world emanates not only from the past, but also from a divine promise about the future. Time works in both directions.

We see this in one of the most dramatic scenes of Exodus, when the Jews are caught between the impassable Red Sea before them, and the pursuing Egyptians behind. Moses cries out in prayer, and God responds: “Why cry out to me? Tell the Jews to get moving.” They move forward and the sea splits.

According to the pattern of cause and effect, the Jews were finished. They were between a rock and a wet place. Their past choices as they fled had maneuvered them into an impossible situation, with no path forward. This was the literal end of the road. They seemed destined to perish. But that is not what happens. The sea splits. Why? Because God had promised that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would return and inherit the Promised Land. That promise about the future pulled the Jewish people forward, carving out an impossible possibility that let them advance. The promise time travelled from the future to alter the present and open up a new way forward.

This faith in the future is not simple, naïve, or passive. Rather, it demands the courage to strive for justice against oppression, freedom against tyranny. It requires us to stand down impossibility. Let us consider again the reply which Moses receives from God at Red Sea. It is startling. It is nothing less than a rebuke for having prayed: “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Jews to get moving.” It is as though God was saying, “I don’t move history alone. It is a partnership. I have everything prepared for your bold action. It is your move now!” Don’t stand still: move towards the future.

The Jewish conception of history becomes a call for moral revolution regardless of the historic conditions. It is an attitude in love with possibility. What appeared to be fate written in stone, the unending enslavement of a small people to an indomitable Egyptian empire, is revealed as a passing phenomenon to be overthrown. There was no chance it would work, and then it was a reality bright as the desert sun. There is no “way things have to be,” no inevitability to political or natural facts. Instead, there is a loving author of the universe who is not merely the first cause, Prime Mover and instigator of the Big Bang, but who is actively involved and who helps us, through our own efforts, to set the course of history.

The non-Jewish historian Paul Johnson summed this up beautifully in his book on Jewish history. He opens it by observing that, “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.