By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
The first prescribed liturgy in Jewish tradition – the first official prayer – was neither a petition for divine assistance nor a statement of praise or thanksgiving to God. The first official liturgy (Deuteronomy 26:5-10), recited upon presenting the first fruits of the harvest to a Priest, was a review of Jewish history: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean….” The prayer recounts Israelite origins, enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, God’s miracles, and God’s gift of the Promised Land to the People Israel.
Similarly, the first of the Ten Commandments is neither a prohibition (like “Thou shalt not murder”), nor a prescriptive Command (like “Honor thy father and mother”). The Decalogue begins by restating the historical experience through which Israel’s relationship with God was solidified: “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt….” (Exodus 20:2).
One of the Jewish People’s greatest gifts to human civilization is the sanctity of historical literacy. It is through the unfolding of history that we perceive God’s presence, and that our moral obligations (and the record of humanity’s moral progress) are made clear. As Rabbi Jacob Marcus taught, “The historian’s desk is an altar.”
The Jewish past is the key to the Jewish future. If we forget our origins… we are history.