History Through a Torah Lens
Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )
Devarim, 32:7: “Remember the days of old; understand the changes of each generation; ask your father and he will tell you; [ask] your elder and he will speak to you.”
The verse in Haazinu instructs us to remember history and to understand the changes of each generation. The final part of the verse seems unrelated to the previous two clauses – It tells us to ask our father and Elders but does not explain what it refers to. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman explains that the verse is teaching us that in the same way that we have to understand the Torah, so too we must contemplate all the happenings in the world and understand them through the lens of the Torah. The way to do this is by asking one’s elders who have more experience in the world, and Torah Sages who do indeed view the world through a Torah lens.
This idea is not restricted to studying Jewish history alone, rather it is essential to view God’s hand in all of history in this way. Rabbi Wasserman cites verses that indicate that the purpose of all of history is for the sake of the Jewish people. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that suffering only comes to the world for the sake of the Jewish people, meaning that it is to teach us a lesson.
Similarly, Rabbi Avigdor Miller writes of the Torah value of studying general history:
“By examining his past history, every person can discover a great network of intricate plan and purpose, which makes him aware of God’s constant guidance of the individual’s footsteps. By examining the events of Mankind’s history, one becomes aware of God’s guidance of the affairs of nations.”1
In this vein, Rabbi Yaakov Astor2 notes that the general study of history in the world, including many history books that are used in Observant schools, totally lack a Torah perspective, which can have a desensitizing effect on students of history, causing them to view events in a purely secular manner, detached from any sense of a Guiding Hand or purpose in events.
While acknowledging that one can never be certain of why specific events take place, Rabbi Astor cites Rabbi Miller as asserting that by following the principles expounded by the Sages, one can discern a general plan. Accordingly, Rabbi Astor (with approval from Torah Sages) wrote a whole book attempting to see Divine Providence in some of the major world events of the 20th Century. He brings numerous cases, some more obvious than others, when certain, seemingly minor events changed the course of history in monumental ways. A number of these took place in the Second World War, which is the clearest example of a clash between good and total evil, where had the evil side prevailed, then the consequences for the Jewish people and the whole world would have been even more devastating than they already were.
One key event in this war was the Battle of Britain.3 The Germans had overrun most of Europe by the end of May 1940. Russia would not enter the war for another year, and the US several months after that. The only remaining bastion against the German onslaught was Great Britain. The German’s strategy for the invasion of England, called, “Operation Sea Lion”, was to first win air superiority over the enemy, which would then facilitate a German invasion. They would to his by attacking the RAF, the British Airforce. The Germans were very confident of success in this air war, since their Luftwaffe air force outnumbered Britain’s by nearly four-to-one, a force of 1,300 bombers, 760 fighter planes and 300 dive bombers.
Rabbi Astor writes an account of how this battle developed:
“Wave upon wave of Nazi bombers and fighters, usually three tiers thick, attacked convoys in the English Channel, as well as airfields and the vital radar stations on the ground, intending to deal a deathblow to the RAF. The British pilots fought bravely from the beginning. But in mid-August, the Luftwaffe stepped up the attacks, hammering at England’s most strategic targets. The RAF was wearing down, and actually running out of pilots…As August progressed, Goering4 was confident enough to assure Hitler that a few more days of concentrated attacks on the RAF would enable operation “Sea Lion” to proceed. Just then, when things looked most bleak, a “twist of fate” changed the course of the battle – and history.”
At that very point, when the situation was at its grimmest, a seemingly minor event changed the course of the battle, and history. The Luftwaffe’s orders had been expressly to destroy military bases and arsenals, but to avoid bombing civilians for fear retaliatory strikes on German cities. However, one night, a fleet of German bombers lost their way. Unaware that they were directly over London, they dropped their bombs, destroying homes and killing civilians. The British did indeed retaliate and bombed civilians in Berlin. The raid did not kill any Berliners but the effect on the Germans was devastating. Goering had promised that bombs would never fall on Berlin. The RAF bombers continued bombing Berlin, and Hitler, changed his policy and ordered his planes to switch from pounding military targets to civilian ones. This decision was very popular in Germany, but by consensus, it cost him the Battle of Britain, and in the opinion of many, ultimately the war.
The Germans did indeed inflict great damage over Britain – hundreds were killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands became homeless. Yet, despite the great terror and slaughter of civilians, this shift in German strategy brought the RAF crucial breathing space, and it was able to fill in the holes on its airfields, repair equipment, reconnect the communications and gather its breath. British aircraft factories were able to continue production. Eventually, the Germans gave up on their attempt to invade Britain, and the Battle of Britain was won. As well as ensuring that one bastion against the Germans remained until the Russians and Americans entered the war, Rabbi Astor points out that this battle was key on a psychological level as well. “The British victory marked the first failure of Hitler’s war machine. It also signaled a shift in American opinion at a time when many Americans believed that Britain could not survive.”5 In addition to the ‘mistake’ of the German bombers, the fact that Hitler altered his strategy in such a foolish way, is also is indicative of a Hidden Hand.
Rabbi Astor observes:
“Secular historians often employ the term “ill-luck” or “pure chance” to describe events such as the one that led Nazi bombers astray, causing them to bomb London and change the course of the war. However, the Torah perspective understands that the hand of Hashem is what moves the “players” on the playing field, not instrument panels of map readings.”6
Studying history through the eyes of the Torah can bring us to a great Emunah and appreciation of Divine Providence.
- Rejoice O Youth, p.347.
- A renowned author of numerous Torah works.
- This account is based on the Chapter, ‘The Battle of Britain’, pp.41-45 in ‘The Hidden Hand’, written by Rabbi Astor.
- Herman Goering, yemach shemo, was the Field Marshall of the German Airforce. His fate after the war was to be sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but he committed suicide before the execution.
- Ibid, p.230, Footnote 34.
- Ibid, p.44.