Parshat Haazinu is Moses’ penultimate speech to Bnei Yisrael. His speech does not contain any new Mitzvot. It would be better classified as a present day “Mussar Schmooze.” Moses warns the people to follow the Torah and then warns them about the future, telling them that eventually things will go bad.
Instead of focusing on the prophecies of Haazinu, I would like to focus on one verse that I believe to be an important tenet for that generation and all generations after, including our generation. I am referring to Devarim 32:7, which says, “Zechor Yemot Olam, Binu Shnot Dor V’Dor, Shial Avicha Viyagedcha, Zeqeinecha ViYomru Lach.” “Remember the days of the world, understand the years of each generation, ask your father and he will tell you, and the elders will speak to you.”
In order to understand the significance of this verse, I would like to present the following argument, an argument based on Sefer Qohelet. In the first chapter (verses 2-11) of this highly thought-provoking Biblical work, Qohelet describes the futility of life. All is in vain. Generations come and go, people live and die, and the sun rises and sets everyday. Everything that has occurred will occur again, there is nothing new under the sun. The generations forget what already happened in the world. Thinking there is something new is simply out of ignorance.
After hearing that, one must wonder, what does Qohelet mean? Is he serious in his evaluation of the world? How is it that there is nothing new under the sun? It is true that certain things repeat, but how is it possible to assume that all things repeat? Rashi, for example, when explaining, “Mah Shehayah Hu Sheyihiyeh” “That which was will be (1:9),” claims that nature never changes. All things were created during the six days of Creation and nothing new will ever come into existence (also implying that miracles are built into Creation, which might be a literal read of Sefer Qohelet).
However, one should not assume that Qohelet is merely talking about nature and man’s relationship to it. He also appears to be claiming that all trends and occurrences in history are not new. This seems strange at first. Consider the following, as one of my history professors argued when explaining why George Santayana’s statement of “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is not a legitimate read of history. How can he claim that things repeat? There can only be one WWI, one WWII, one assassination of Abraham Lincoln, etc. Now, when hearing this, I thought it naïve. Santayana is not saying that actual events will repeat. He is talking about trends. The same is true for Qohelet. He is not saying, for example, that the same people live and die, over and over again. (Although, Sefer HaBahir, an early medieval work of Qabbalah, uses one of these verses, “Dor Holech Vidor Ba” “A generation goes; a generation comes,” to teach the concept of reincarnation). Qohelet argues that the trends of how people act and function don’t change. Nevertheless, people never remember what happens in previous generations.
If this is the case, let us begin to examine the ‘cure’ to this problem. If things are not new, if all people always act a certain way, then how do we tap into understanding how the world functions?
The answer lies in the verse we are discussing, “Zechor Yemot Olam…”. Moses wants us to remember the past, to allow it to be a continuous source of knowledge, teaching us about our mistakes so that we might not repeat them. The study of our past, of Jewish history, is the epitome of this verse, though our own personal histories do also play a role, and should also be a source of advice.
As we conclude the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, may this verse be a guide for us to finish the period of repentance on a high note. If we analyze the mistakes of the past, both ours and our ancestors’, we will hopefully learn how to avoid repeating the errors, thus proving Qohelet wrong, showing how we have free will to change our mistakes and not simply repeat the errors again and again.