The end of history and the donning of the kittel

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In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay in the National Interest called “The End of History?” In this essay, Fukuyama argued that human history is linear and we had evolved over time to humanity’s final form: liberal democracy. 

It was an appealing notion. After a war-torn century, full of great struggles among great powers, the end of the Cold War inspired a sense that we were living at the dawn of a new era. Peace and coexistence. Democracy and global freedom. The end of history.

But Fukuyama was wrong. The Soviet Union went through a period of liberalization only to be captured by Vladimir Putin, who is even now attempting to rebuild an evil empire through oppression and conquest. Radical Islamism, embodied by Iran and its proxies, seeks a return to a dark age of intolerance and tyranny. Socialism, only recently discredited, is once again the rage on Western campuses, embraced naively by young people and useful idiots too ignorant of history to understand its supreme folly. 

In short, history beckons. 

“In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.” We will read this admonition next week when we sit down to our Passover seders. It’s always a struggle: We read the sentence. We try to live up to it. But Egypt was a long time ago, and slavery is something we have to force ourselves to try to imagine. We conjure images from the classic film “The Ten Commandments,” like Edward G. Robinson snarling as the Jewish people work the mud pits. We eat the haroset, trying to remember the mortar; we eat the maror, trying to taste the bitterness — but we can’t really get there. We even create metaphors for our children of modern-day enslavement to smartphones and social media, all the while knowing that our ancestors would have gladly traded bondage for Instagram. It just doesn’t ring true. 

“Not only one nation has stood against us to destroy us, but in each generation they stand against us to destroy us.” We struggle with this one as well. Yes, there are antisemites; yes, there is evil in the world. But since the fall of the Nazi regime, our genocidal haters have lacked an army, a state. There have been those who wanted Jewish blood, but they weren’t Haman. They weren’t seeking to erase our people. Per Fukuyama, history seemed linear. We evolved. Yesterday’s nightmare wasn’t today’s. 

Until now. Until Oct. 7. Until Saturday night, as a swarm of drones and missiles made their way across the Middle East toward Jerusalem. Now the weight of history bears down upon us once again. We taste the bitterness; we remember our enslavement; we see our enemies rise up against us. History is with us.

I was in Washington, D.C. last week, where I made a point of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite site in the capital. I paused to read the two great speeches by Abraham Lincoln carved into its walls: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I read them both slowly, trying to look for new meaning in these speeches that I know mostly by heart. The words Lincoln spoke on the battlefield of Gettysburg made me think of the brave Israeli men and women who are fighting our fight even at this very moment. It’s not simply the fight of the Jewish people — it’s the fight of Western civilization. Our foe will not rest with a victory in Tel Aviv, but will continue that fight to London and Paris and New York if given the chance. “It is for us,” Lincoln exhorted, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” I’ll be thinking of that, and of those Israelis, during my seder. 

So, is history linear or cyclical? Are we back where we were when our ancestors wrote the Haggadah? Are we with Lincoln at Gettysburg? 

I think, actually, that we have evolved. Something on Saturday night gave me hope. It’s true that the weapons unleashed by the modern-day Pharaoh in Tehran were ultimately destroyed when they reached Israel — but many of them never made it that far. They were destroyed before even reaching Israeli airspace by American, British, and Jordanian forces. Our ancestors could not have imagined a non-messianic scenario where the world’s great powers would fight side by side with the Jewish people against her enemies. Even a decade ago it would have been hard to think of an Arab country coming to our defense against an Iranian menace. (True, the Jordanians have since announced they were acting in their own self-defense, but the results still speak for themselves). The Haggadah reminds us how easy it is to identify moments in history when we were under mortal threat. Until now, it’s been difficult to find moments where the world stood with us. 

On the night of the seder, many men don a kittel, a white robe we traditionally wear under the chuppah, on Yom Kippur and, ultimately, as a burial shroud. Why wear it at the seder? In a recent article, Rabbi Shlomo Brody offered a compelling explanation: Just as a groom wears the kittel to signify a new start, unblemished and unhindered by the past, freedom presents us all with the same opportunity. The Israelites of the Exodus were embarking on a new chapter — writing, for the first time, the next page in their history. They were actors, not subjects. The world held potential and hope. It was a fresh beginning. 

Maybe we have the same fresh beginning in front of us. Perhaps history doesn’t proceed in a straight line after all, nor is it exactly cyclical. It meanders. It takes surprising turns, and there are often setbacks. While we are prepared to stand alone, venturing into the unknown as our ancestors did before us, at least on this one occasion we found we didn’t have to. 

As I put on my kittel next week, I’ll be thinking about the past and about the future. About the blessings of true freedom and the sting of true enslavement. I’ll be thinking about hope, a new turn in the journey. And I’ll be grateful for the miracles afforded us Saturday night, both man-made and Divine, and praying for a new beginning. 

Mark Charendoff is the president of the Maimonides Fund.