History or Progress?

Shmuel Halpern
3 min readApr 1, 2021


Something I read in a book this week rubbed me the wrong way. The author divided the world into two camps (always a bad idea). In the first camp are the people who look back at history and say, “those were the days.” They don’t see humanity progressing to a loftier and improved existence. All they’d like to see is things going back to the way they were. In the second camp, people believe in progress. They have a sense of wonder about the potential of mankind. They look not to the past, but to the future.

If there’s ever a time of year that we contemplate our Jewish history, it’s Pesach. Let’s test this authors hypothesis, is Pesach only about the past?

Pesach is the holiday of tradition. At the Seder, we sit and recount the exodus, painting a vivid picture in our minds of the past. The Master of the world intervened to free His people from slavery. He brought the Jewish nation close to Him, and designated them as His people.

Wow, it was truly amazing; but how should that guide us today? Is it simply telling us to look back and appreciate where we come from, or is there something more to it? Is Pesach just about nostalgia?

When we look out of our window to the street, or when we look inward through the window to our soul, do we see true freedom?! Do we see people free to their truest selves? Free to develop and deliver their most unique contributions. Or do we perhaps find so many who are slaves to whims; bound by the winds of the times; imprisoned by fears, doubts and confusion.

But wait, Pesach extends beyond Seder night. While the Seder is focused mostly on the past, the seventh day of Pesach — when we commemorate the splitting of the waters — teaches us about the future.

The waters themselves inspired the Jews to sing the song of the future. What is water, and how did it inspire us so?

Of all substances, liquids have the least form, and when placed in a receptacle, adapt to the form of the host.

Reality has a waterlike quality. Reality too, it seems, has no form of its own. The universe and history, both personal and collective, are subject to the interpretations of perception. We have a choice. We can passively allow the superficiality of the world to hoist its meaning upon us. At worst we are victims of a harsh reality; at best we are on the receiving end of a life of comfort and leisure. Either way, we are powerless. Or, we can choose to perceive the inner meaning, and bring forth the unborn potential that lies within all of reality. This choice is not comfortable. It requires that we dig deep within; that we sacrifice the creature comforts that inertia provides; that we fight away those niggling doubts. But it is really the only way.

Or is it?

Grammatically, the Song of the Sea opens in the future tense with the word Az (then). Standing on dry land within the sea, the Jews got a glimpse of a future, transcendent, otherworldly dimension. Here, there’s no need for the creative potential of man to fight its way to the surface. The inner and outer worlds will unite and become one.

The sages tell us that the word Az (then) hints at the resurrection of the dead. Death results from the conflict between body and soul. As opposites, the two can’t remain together forever. However, a time will come when the physical and spiritual, the finite and the infinite, the limited and the transcended, all unite. With body and soul in perfect unity, death is swallowed forever, never to reappear.

Yes, Pesach is about memories. We’ve had a glorious past. But that was only the beginning. The present rests on the past, which paves the way for the most incredible future.