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Lessons of the Past

Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )

by Nesanel Yoel Safran

This week's Torah portion is unique in that it's a song. It is Moses' song describing the history of the Jewish people, their relationships with the other nations of the world and with God.

Some people may feel that history is boring. "What does that have to do with me?" they may ask. But really, history is much more than a story of what happened a long time ago. It can be a priceless guide to help us live better lives right now. For example, we can learn from the experiences of others -what worked for them and what didn't. We can use this information to make better choices in our own lives.


In our story a boy discovers that the lessons of the past have something to say to him.


The Cohen household wasn't quite the same since Grandpa had moved in.

The boys were sleeping in the playroom so their grandfather could have their quiet bedroom, and their dad had added a leaf to make the kitchen table bigger so there would be room for the new member of the family.

The house now seemed to have a special warm and cozy feel to it since the lively older man had arrived.

Grandpa loved to putter around the garden and somehow knew just what each tree and plant needed to make it really grow. But more than anything Grandpa loved to spend time with his grandchildren. He would give them candies that he pulled out of his seemingly bottomless pockets and would tell them stories about his childhood.

Brandon Cohen loved his Grandpa's stories, but his brother Jeff felt like they were just "ancient history" and had to try hard to keep himself from yawning in the middle of them.

One Sunday morning the boys were in the garage getting their bikes ready to ride to the nearby community center to go swimming. They were about to leave when Grandpa walked in through the open garage door. He was holding a rake he had been using out in the garden.

"Hey fellas," Grandpa called out with a smile. "Where are you off to so early in the morning?"

Before the boys could even answer he went on: "You know when I was a boy I also used to have a bike, of course it wasn't as fancy as yours..." he said, pointing to the two gleaming bicycles.

He went on to tell the boys about how he always made it a point to bring a special coin with him whenever he went on a trip and gave it as charity when he safely arrived at his destination. "Then you're always on your way to do a good deed, and that's the best 'travel insurance' there is!" he said with a smile.

Brandon drank in his grandfather's words while Jeff stifled yawns and glanced at his watch. After a few minutes Grandpa finished his story and walked back out to the garden, this time with a hoe.

"Well let's go," said Jeff impatiently. "Maybe we can still get to the pool before it gets crowded."

But Brandon stopped him. "Wait a minute. I'll be right back," he said and dashed into the house. Soon he came out holding a shiny half-dollar coin. "Here," he said. "Travel insurance, just like Grandpa said. I'll put it in the collection box for the needy at the community center. Do you want to get one too?" he asked his brother.

Jeff just laughed. "What for?" he said. "Grandpa was just telling us some more of his ancient history. I'll bet his bike was so old and rickety that he needed 'insurance.' My good ol' all-terrain mountain bike is tough enough to go it alone."

Brandon shrugged and the boys started out. They had only gone a few blocks when they came up to a big yellow detour sign. The policeman standing there explained that there was a construction ahead and anyone wanting to get across town would have to take the much longer Hilldale Road.

The boys turned their bikes around to take the detour. The long hilly road made for rough riding and the boys stopped for a brief rest. When they started up again, Jeff's bike wouldn't move.

"The gear is stuck. You go on ahead. I'll catch up with you in no time," said Jeff as he struggled to loosen the chain. After a little while, he got going. But a few minutes later his bike started to hiss, and soon the back tire was totally flat. "I can't believe it," he sighed.

As he began to fix the tire, he thought about his Grandpa's story and that maybe it did have something to say to him after all. There were good deeds to do nowadays just like in Grandpa's time. It took quite a while to fix the flat, and by the time he made it to the community center, it was about to close and they wouldn't let him in the pool. His brother, Brandon was just coming out of the changing room, looking refreshed after a nice swim. "Sorry you missed out," said Brandon sympathetically.

Jeff nodded and said, "Maybe I didn't get to swim, but I did get to learn that it is worthwhile to pay attention to Grandpa's history lessons. I will appreciate his wisdom much more from now on."


Ages 3-5

Q. How did Jeff feel when he first heard his Grandpa's stories?
A. He felt like they were boring because they happened so long ago.

Q. How did he feel after his bike ride?
A. He realized that he could also learn something from what his Grandfather had to say.

Ages 6-9

Q. Why do you think that some people are bored hearing about things that happened in the past?
A. Generally people are only interested in things that they can relate to. When they start to hear about things from the past they may feel that these stories are not relevant to their lives. But if we all learn to focus on the underlying message in what we're hearing -- like Grandpa's message that good deeds are important and seem to provide "heavenly protection" -- we'll find ourselves learning new things from experiences of long ago.

Q. Why do you think Brandon and Jeff's Grandpa wanted to tell the boys stories from his life?
s A. He loved his grandchildren and he wanted to give to them. He realized that he had learned a lot of valuable lessons over his long life. He wanted to share his wisdom with the boys so that their lives would run smoother. His stories were really like gifts of love.

Q. What are some things you have learned from the lives of your parents and grandparents?

Ages 10 and Up

Q. Do you think that people today are the same as they were 100 years ago? How about 1,000 years ago?
A. Obviously there have been many changes in the world over the decades and centuries -- styles have changed, and new technology makes the world seem totally new and different. But underlying all of this is a basic human nature that remains the same. People's feelings and motivations are largely consistent with what they have always been. A man from 1,000 years ago would have no idea what a cell-phone is, but he would understand why you feel bad if all of your friends have one and you don't. If we are able to look beyond all of the external trappings of periods of history and focus on the universal lessons of human nature that they provide, then the past becomes a valuable window to the future.

Q. Is it preferable to learn from our own mistakes or from the mistakes of others? Why?
A. It's definitely valuable to learn from our mistakes. What a shame to mess up and not even learn from it for the next time! But if we can avoid the mess-up in the first place, all the better. We can when we learn to look at the lives of those around us and those who lived before us, and analyze what they did right and what they did wrong. We have a fantastic opportunity to live a happier life and avoid a lot of painful mistakes if we are willing to do so. "A fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others."

Q. What are some things you have learned from the lives of your parents and grandparents?


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