History Doesn’t Happen, People Make it Happen
As Jacob sat on his deathbed and was about to reveal to his children what would occur at the “end of days,” (Sotah 57a) God withdrew his spirit from the elderly patriarch, preventing him from sharing his prophecy of what was to come. God prevented Jacob from reporting what would occur at the “end of days” to emphasize that we have bechirah, free will. Though Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers teaches that all is foreseen, it reminds us that we have been granted free will (Avot 3:15). In other words, though an all-knowing God foresees all, he has empowered us to make our own decisions. God feared that the knowledge of what would happen in the future would serve as an albatross around the necks of Jacob’s sons. Instead of exercising their free will, they would have been tempted to allow the script that their father had shared with them to play out. That is to say, knowledge of the future would deprive Jacob’s son of agency.
The story of Jacob’s descendants’ liberation from slavery, serves as a polemic against the ideas that one should forfeit agency and passively follow a script allowing it to play out. Had Jacob’s descendants allowed the script to play out, they would have remained in slavery and disappeared from history.
Fortunately, we find three examples of individuals who refused to follow the script. The first ones who refused to follow the script were Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who courageously exercised free will by subverting Pharaoh’s orders to kill the male Hebrew babies. Though the Talmud (Sotah 11b) suggests these women were none other than Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses, the possibility that these midwives were Egyptian is even more compelling, for it illustrates the compassion that they felt for even lowly foreigners. The second who refused to follow the script, was Pharaoh’s own daughter. The princess defied her father’s will by exercising her free will, saving a baby her father had condemned to die. According to the Talmud (Sotah 12b), the princess saved the baby despite the fact that her maid’s servants warned her it was prohibited to undermine her father’s edict. The third who refused to follow the script, was Moses. The young Moses, an adopted grandson of a Pharaoh, chose to forsake a life of privilege in order to rescue a lowly slave. We are told that before killing the Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating the Hebrew slave, “he turned this way and that way,” as if he was attempting to determine which road he should follow, the road of royalty or the road of revolution. Had Moses chosen the road of royalty, he would have died as an anonymous Egyptian noble. Because Moses chose to follow his conscience, that is the road of rebellion, his name is synonymous with freedom and godliness.
The actions of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses, remind us that Judaism rejects the ideas that are circular views of history. That is, historical outcomes are inevitable and we simply must accept the world as it is. In other words, history doesn’t simply happen, people make it happen. The choices that courageous individuals make in the pursuit of doing God’s work, represent a linear view of history, that humanity can be changed for the better by following God’s will.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood this message. Though he was urged by fellow clergy to cease his political activities, as they felt it was unseemly for a clergyman to participate in politics, King in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, justified actions by explaining that he was following in the footsteps of Israel’s ancient prophets who championed justice for all. Like Moses, King forsakes a comfortable life, the life of an academic theologian, for the life of a reformer. Had King chosen the comfortable life, he would have died not as an American hero, but as an anonymous figure. Moses and King understood Pirkei Avot’s dictum: “a good name surpasses all.”
King’s actions stand in direct contradiction to those of Claudine Gay, who resigned from position as the president of Harvard University this week. Gay has been beleaguered since she, along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, humiliated themselves before Congress by choosing to kowtow to Jew hating campus radical mobs and failing to unequivocally identify and condemn antisemitic acts. Though Gay will continue to be employed and draw a large salary from Harvard, she along with her two colleagues, will be remembered not for choosing to walk courageously in the footsteps of Moses and King, who exemplified humanity at its best, but rather as leaders who missed the opportunity to lead, by pandering to the mob. As mobs take over campuses, and as the January 6 anniversary of the Capitol attack approaches, let us remember that our job is not to follow the mob, but to use our free will to do God’s will.