Performing The Unpredictable

Performing The Unpredictable

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:18 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:22 p.m.

Once again, we come to the end of a book in Torah, the first one (in this case), a time of great excitement traditionally. Medieval Jews composed poetry for the occasion — short couplets, usually, noting the fact that they were finishing one book and beginning the next. The poems usually make use of word plays on the Hebrew name for Genesis (Bereshit, “in the beginning”) — like, “We are finishing the book ‘In the Beginning’; praise to the God of ‘beginnings.’” The great legalist Jacob ben-Asher, however, supplies a philosophical consideration: “Praise to the God who foretells the end from the beginning.”

Therein lies in a mystery. If God knows everything, then from the time the universe began, God must know how everything turns out ever after. Isaac Newton would have concurred: his mechanistic system, he said, reveals the mind of God. Nature is utterly predictable. Were we to know all the forces operating at every moment, we too could calculate every moment of the future from the past. God, who does know it all, must know our destiny in advance. So much for free will.

Way back in the second century, the Mishnah posed this dilemma of God’s omniscience on one hand and human free will on the other, by saying, “Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given.” How is that possible?

Some medieval manuscript copiers changed tsafu’i (the Hebrew for “foreseen”) to tsafun (“hidden away”) — the somewhat lesser claim that the consequences of actions are hidden not just from our sight but even from God’s — no one knows them in advance! The great 16th-century commentator Obadiah Bertinoro, interpreted “foreseen” as God’s looking into the inner chambers of our hearts when we intend an action, without actually knowing in advance that we will do it. Nonetheless, the Mishnah seems originally to have recognized that what we do is in part determined and in part not.

What part is determined and what part not, then? To some extent, the answer lies in this week’s Torah portion. As Genesis concludes, we find Jacob assembling his sons to bless them. But instead of actual blessings, he offers oracular statements of each child’s destiny. Simeon and Levi, are “lawless … unable to contain their anger.” Reuven is “unstable.” Judah is destined to rule, and Joseph is the natural recipient of heavenly blessing. 

What Jacob provides is descriptions of character, personality traits that he has observed in his children, the patterns by which they live.  Indeed, we all have such patterns. We are introverted or extroverted, for example, optimistic or pessimistic. Whether by nature or by nurture — probably both — we make our way in the world with patterns ingrained within us. Those who know us can predict with some accuracy how we will approach our challenges and even what we are likely to do about them. That much is indeed foreseen.

But as much as we are endowed with predictable patterns, we also have the capacity to break those patterns and perform the unpredictable. That indeed is our glory. The Maharal of Prague  identified this capacity to act contrary to our usual course of action as evidence of being made in the image of God.

Therein lies the significance of Joseph, the last of our great biblical ancestors whose tale is told in Genesis. His story is largely over by the time this sedra gets underway; it could easily have wrapped up the Joseph narrative and then ended the book with the blessings, a synoptic statement of Israel’s destiny as the Twelve Tribes will carry it out — precisely the topic alluded to in the next sedra, the introduction to Exodus which elucidates the names and status of each tribe. But Genesis insists on ending with Joseph. A final statement of his death makes up the very last sentence in the book — a decision not lost on the Tosafot who use it to cite Joseph’s equivalence to the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What Joseph adds to the mix is that he epitomizes the human capacity to transcend personality patterns. Although spoiled through and through as a child and self-centered in the extreme, Joseph somehow becomes a farsighted leader who saves Egypt from famine, and then personally reunites with his brothers without seeking retribution for what they have done to him.

Our personality traits are foreseen; what we choose to do, either with them or despite them, is not. To be quintessentially human is to be gifted with the ability to override kneejerk responses that seem hardwired in us, and to substitute actions that would make God proud of who we are. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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