We live in a world of much information but little perspective; news cycles seem to be getting shorter and shorter, and the explosion of electronic communication and social media has further fragmented our understanding of the world around us – making it all the more difficult to gain the proper perspective necessary to understand life.
The Gemara describes a fetus in the womb for the purpose of teaching us important ideas about life. It describes how the fetus can “see from one side of the world to the other.” What does this mean? It cannot mean that the fetus has unlimited physical vision, but rather, that a human being, in order to achieve greatness, needs to have vision; to see things in greater perspective; that when we look at things, it should not be in a fragmented or one-dimensional way, but rather we should see the full and broad perspective.
We can apply this idea to Israel today, for example. We need to step back and look at the state of Israel in terms of the enormous miracle that it is, from the broader perspective of the sweep of Jewish history. We so often get quagmired in the latest political wrangle around the negotiations, or with the unjustifiable hate and criticism leveled at the Jewish state, or the internal culture wars over the draft and Israeli identity, that we forget how unusual and miraculous it is to have Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel – something that for almost two thousand years, Jews were not blessed with. Let us step back and appreciate and thank G-d for all the miracles of Israel’s breath-taking successes in virtually every field of human endeavor to create a sparkling energetic society as it develops from strength to strength. Perspective in life is everything.
Also consider South Africa this year on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of freedom and democracy. So often we get caught up in the latest headlines and crisis and scandal, and yet this milestone is an opportunity to step back from the fray of day-to-day politics and governance, and to appreciate the twenty-year journey of South Africa; to appreciate that the country has embarked on a journey from the tyranny of apartheid where human rights were routinely abused, to a new dispensation where institutions of freedom and democracy are well established in South Africa. That is not to gloss over the problems, but it is to say: let us have a look at things from a broader perspective.
This idea is also crucial to understanding our own lives and appreciating the blessings that we have. As the Gemara says, a person should give thanks to G-d for every breath of air. Perspective is to look at the broader picture of our lives, and in spite of whatever problems and challenges we may be facing, to see our G-d-given lives in their fullest sense, and not to allow ourselves to get pulled into one specific problem that dominates everything else and causes us to lose sight of the big picture.
It is also about finding our sense of purpose and meaning in life. The Torah is G-d’s system of wisdom and action that gives us a full perspective on our lives – to understand who we are and where we come from, and what our purpose is on this earth.
Pessah, in particular, is a time of perspective – when we go back to the beginning, to our formative moments as a people, and in so doing, gain an understanding of the full sweep of Jewish history, right up until the present day. On Seder night, we are commanded by G-d to speak about the Exodus from Egypt.
We don’t just recount the historical facts, but tell the story in the manner in which G-d has shown us. The Haggada is composed in such a way that in retelling the events and re-experiencing the great miracles which G-d performed for our ancestors in Egypt, we are actually putting the various fragments together to form a large, integrated whole. For example, we do not look at the ten plagues as isolated occurrences but see the pattern within them. As we go through the Haggada we realize that the Exodus from Egypt was not an isolated event but an event which occurred in the context of our people’s history, going all the way back to our Forefathers and Matriarchs, Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. On Seder night we do not just tell of the Exodus experience, but about how we got to Egypt in the first place, the destiny of our people and the events subsequent to our liberation – the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, entering the land of Israel, the final redemption. We look at the full sweep of history, not just at the isolated events being recounted at that moment.
Through this, G-d teaches us an important lesson – that we need to look at the broader perspective and to contextualize the events of history in order to make sense of them. Often we get pulled into the vortex of a particular event’s intensity, to the point where we are not able to see the larger picture. But one of the great teachings of the Torah is that nothing in this world is random; no event is an isolated occurrence and everything is part of the Divine sweep of history. We need to piece together the fragments so that they cohere in a meaningful way which reflects G-d’s master plan.
The mitzva of retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt enables us to glean, and impart to the next generation, a coherent, comprehensive picture of our people’s history and destiny. It is not just about relating the individual incidents and miracles, but about seeing things from a broader perspective. From the Haggada we learn to see ourselves as central characters in the unfolding story of Jewish destiny, as guided by G-d; we learn to see events not as random, fragmented headlines but as part of the meaningful story of who we are and what our mission is in this world, to find our clarity of purpose and sense of Divine mission, as we learn to “see from one side of the world to the other.”
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.