Changing the Future by Learning From History

Written by Rabbi Stephen Baars on . Posted in Torah

The book of Genesis is the history of the world, in that it features the pained and unfortunately consistent story of brothers not getting along. It starts with Cain and Abel (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9) and only ends when two brothers finally get the right answer: Yes.

To paraphrase Santayana: People who don’t learn from history have little to look forward to.

Let me explain.

Why was World War I originally referred to as “The Great War”? Because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. They sure got that one wrong, obviously, because we got World War II. And a lot of bad war movies.

So, why is it so difficult to learn from history? Simply put, the first step to learning from history is to not blame the other guy. If we aren’t willing to accept responsibility for our role in what happened, then what happened will surely happen again.

The Cuban Missile Crisis did not kick off World War III because even though both Russia and America were ready, willing, and able to duke it out, Kennedy and Khrushchev both decided to try something different.

That is basically the story that closes the book of Genesis. Instead of what should have been, according to the flow of history, another battle of brothers, Ephraim and Menashe figure it out.

The story goes like this: Jacob, before he dies, blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:12-20). In the process, he deliberately gives the younger son the greater honor. This is something that every previous time started another round of the perennial sibling-versus-sibling battle. This time, however, things end differently. As Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt"l explains, that is why we bless our sons that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe rather than like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (our patriarchs). More than we want our children to be great, we want them to find peace.

Remember this message as you educate your children and push them to “be all they can be.” It is not for a lack of very clever and accomplished people that mankind has continually fought, brother against brother. It is the spirit of peace, not genius, that has achieved more than anyone could ever imagine.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how smart you are — living together in peace will achieve much more. So, if you want your children to succeed in life, teach them how to get along.

By Rabbi Stephen Baars

 Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. He did nine years of post-graduate studies at the Aish HaTorah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, and has been an educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years. Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at and