History, the study of cause and effect in the annals of humankind, has been a serious challenge for honest historians. In many ways, interpreting history is conjecture. What motivates many historians, more than what actually occurred, is what they would like to believe happened. After all, how can a person ever really know what was the cause and what was the effect in a specific instance? Sometimes, what we believe to be the cause is, rather, the effect.
Our Sages draw our attention to this phenomenon when they deal with Joseph’s release from prison. Referring to the words, “A definite period was set for the world to spend in darkness” (Iyov 28:3), the Midrash states: “A definite number of years was set for Joseph to spend in darkness, in the prison. When the appointed time came: ‘And it came to pass, at the end of two years, and Pharaoh dreamed a dream…’” (Bereishit 41:1, Midrash Rabbah)
Rabbi Gedalya Schorr, in his monumental work, Ohr Gedalyahu, points out that this observation radically differs from the standard, academic way of dealing with historical events.
Reading the story in the traditional way, we would no doubt conclude that because Pharaoh dreamed a dream that required interpretation, Joseph, known to be a man with prophetic insight into dreams, was asked to come and see Pharaoh. After having successfully interpreted the dreams, Joseph was not only freed but elevated to the position of second-in-command of Egypt. This would mean that Pharaoh’s dream caused Joseph’s freedom.
A careful reading of our Midrash, however, suggests the reverse. It was because Joseph had to be freed and become the viceroy of Egypt that Pharaoh had to have a dream. The cause was, in fact, the effect.
This approach, then, opens a completely new way of understanding history. Judaism suggests that at certain times God issues emanations into this world so as to awaken people and spur them to action, just as Pharaoh received his dreams in order for Joseph’s imprisonment to come to an end.
A later example of this is the story of Chanukah. The Jews knew that logically there was no chance of a successful uprising against the Greeks, but God created a notion of revolt in the minds of the Maccabees. The greatness of these few Jews was manifest in their correct reaction to this heavenly directive. They realized what needed to be done, however preposterous.
Midrashic literature often compares the Greek empire to “darkness that blinded the eyes of the Jews in their exile” – “Choshech zeh galut Yavan” (Bereishit 1:2, Midrash Rabbah). The traditional interpretation is that Jews in the Maccabean period were blinded by the Greeks’ worship of the body and followed their example.
It may, however, have a much deeper meaning. The Greeks were also the inventors of historical interpretation. Greek thinkers were among the first to try and understand history in its more scientific form, as reflected in the need to search for cause and effect. From the point of view of the Midrash, this approach blinded the Jews from reading history as divine emanations and the human response to them. It misconstrued the deeper meaning of history, reversed cause and effect, and darkened the bright insight of the Jews.
One of the most mysterious aspects of the human psyche is the dimension of motivation. Human beings suddenly hear an “inner voice,” or feel a mysterious pull to do something, while not understanding the source of the motivation. This is true not only regarding human actions but even taste and preference.
History is replete with examples of people radically changing their taste in art and music. Melodies are considered superb and irreplaceable; then, half a century later, they lose favor. So it is with art, fashion, and even the color of our wallpaper.
There are no rational explanations for these phenomena (notwithstanding various scientific suggestions). We could argue that all of them are the result of divine emanations communicated to our world.
While it is difficult to explain why these divine messages come, perhaps their main purpose – particularly regarding music and art – is to offer people a feeling of renewal and an insight into the infinite possibilities of God’s creation. Some messages may be a divine response to the earlier deeds or moral condition of humankind. The sudden predilections for more aggressive forms of music or art may be a warning that humans have abated their former dignity.
In the case of emanations, as with the Maccabees, the main challenge is “hearing” the message, correctly interpreting it, and subsequently knowing what it demands of us. This, in itself, requires divine assistance and moral integrity and is not available to all. (In fact, it can be dangerous.)
Throughout history, Jews have experienced many divine emanations. Several of them, cited in the latter part of Tanach, allude to the coming of Mashiach at specific times. (See, for example, the Book of Daniel.) Some of these dates are long behind us, and Mashiach has not yet appeared. This should not surprise us. Dates of Mashiach’s arrival, as cited in Jewish sources, were in no way final statements. They were divine signals that at these times the world would be more conducive to the coming of Mashiach, but they were not guarantees of his arrival. When humanity failed to respond in the appropriate religious and moral manner, the special moment passed with no outcome.
It is hard in this day and age to deny the unique events that have transpired in Israel and the world. The new administration in the USA, the topsy-turvy political situation in Europe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the huge refugee problem, and so many other highly unusual phenomena these days make us wonder. Are they just incidental, or are they divine emanations designed to tell us something? Are they results, or are they causes?
Sponsored Le-ilui Nishmatah shel HaZekenah Miriam Robles Lopes Cardozo eshet HaRav Ha’Abir Neim Zemirot Yisrael Abraham Lopes Cardozo, by her daughters Judith Cardozo-Tenenbaum and Debbie Smith
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