My wife and just returned from an exciting trip to Israel. We didn’t go sightseeing or leave Jerusalem. We spent the time with three Israeli grandchildren and their parents. Flying over the Atlantic Ocean was anticlimactic and I used the time for writing. I tried to watch a film but find headphones uncomfortable and most films don’t hold my interest. My pre packaged kosher meal was served partially frozen and thus I was unable to spend the flight wafting in the delicate aromas or salivating for the next gastronomic experience.
January 1, 2020, a day that has little Jewish significance but can have the power of transforming a person religiously. Traditionally people make commitments to change a character flaw or bad habit. Some plan to begin a diet or start exercising while others make a concerted effort to be better people. I decided to challenge my thought processes. My resolution will endeavor to peel off the veneer of life and take me back to how I thought in my formative years. I plan on revisiting my past as a means of better understanding my present.
I never really thought much about my younger years because I was a mirror image of all my friends. I attended a yeshiva school that dedicated half the school day to religious study. We had little time for sports or extracurricular activities yet I lacked for nothing. Since all my friends attended the same sort of school my childhood was happy and content. I never seriously contemplated how it impacted on who I am and how I think.
I grew up in the Jewish neighborhood of Boro Park (or Borough Park for non native New Yorkers) in Brooklyn where even the Italian grocer was closed on Shabbat. It never occurred to me that as an Orthodox Jew I was a minority in the greater Jewish community. Or that being of the Jewish faith I was a minority in a majority Christian country. My idea of normal may have been vastly different to the average American but growing up in a ghetto like setting I was oblivious of differences within the wider community. I now realize that growing up in a yeshiva setting challenged me to think and contemplate life in a unique way.
Contrary to the stereotypical depiction of an Orthodox Jewish environment, the entire premise of my education was predicated on asking questions. Nothing could be accepted blindly and everything had to be understood rationally. Similar to how mathematics is taught, the final answer was far less important than the process. Our Talmud teachers impressed upon us that all the rabbis quoted in the Talmud were brilliant and intelligent. Thus, the presenter of a difficulty was intellectually as capable as the one who was answering the difficulty. In our eyes they were both equal and it was incumbent upon students to analyze how the thought process of the questioner differed to the thought process of the person answering. Both had to be intellectually correct and they couldn’t be arguing about the facts. We had to articulate how both were thinking rationally but how they were each contemplating the subject matter differently.
My formative years help to impress upon me the importance of understanding the rationale of all sides. The story of Joseph and his brethren can’t be understood solely from Joseph’s perspective, it has to be contemplated from the brothers point of view as well. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, they undergo a radical mea culpa and sincerely apologize. They acknowledged their guilt and were willing to accept their fate. However, Joseph analyzes the situation vastly different to his brothers. He sees their actions as serving the greater good; if it were not for them, he Joseph would never have become viceroy of Egypt. He would never have been in a position to lighten the load of his family in times of famine. In Joseph’s eyes the brothers were completely innocent of any wrongdoing. However, the brothers were still consumed with guilt; they felt responsible for being associated with his torment and suffering. And once again Joseph responds by telling them “lo atem shelachtem oti hayna”, it was not you, my brothers that sold me into slavery. It was God. In other words, Joseph sees the situation differently to his brothers. He understands that his brothers were merely pawns in God’s mysterious world and He forced their hand and removed their ability to control the situation. Hence, from Joseph’s perspective the brothers were entirely vindicated and completely innocent. The brothers on the other hand fail to see any involvement by God and blame only themselves.
And the further I delve into the biblical story of Joseph and his brethren the more difficulty I have. I ponder a philosophical debate about free will and an individual’s personal responsibility. I question if everything is predetermined by God or does mankind control his or her own destiny? And if God does control our every decision should mankind still be held responsible for their actions? It causes me to ponder, if good can be categorized as good if we are pawns in the hand of God. Or if humanity deserves a reward for a good deed if we never had an option to opt out of doing the deed?
I certainly don’t have all the answers and rabbinical sages have previously discussed similar issues. Ramban, the 12th century rabbinic scholar, believes that nothing happens in this world without the direct intervention of God. Those agreeing with him accept a principle that God’s omniscience doesn’t preclude us from making free choices. They maintain that there is no conflict with mankind’s ability to do right and wrong and His being cognizant of what that decision will ultimately be. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, firmly believes that even a leaf falling from a tree is not randomness; it’s all designed and planned by the Almighty Himself. The Sefer Hachinuch quoting Maimonides disagrees with this premise but it’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into his position.
But from my analysis of the biblical story we see mutually exclusive thought patterns that in theory can potentially both be correct. Joseph certainly believes that God controlled his destiny. So much so, that he communicated to his brothers that they should feel no guilt or responsibility. However, it’s the brothers’ initial reaction that intrigues me. The brothers of Joseph are considered holy and righteous. Although, the Torah is replete with their misdeeds, they are still recognized as shivtei kah – the tribes designated by God. Yet, they didn’t initially believe their actions were directed or influenced by God. They firmly believed that their actions were flawed and deserving of punishment. They blamed themselves and only themselves. They certainly believed in God and had faith far greater than the generations of the latter rabbis but they were unperturbed by the thought that God wasn’t in control of their destiny. And Joseph too, could have held that position as well in the majority of situations. He is merely stating than in this particular story he was certain that God intervened in his destiny.
And I follow this pattern of thinking to understand the Ten Commandments. I’m always intrigued how people are willing to accept the Ten Commandments but fail to truly comprehend what they are accepting. The first commandment states: I am the lord your God who took you out of Egypt. This commandment informs the Israelites that it’s incumbent upon them to believe in God. Why? Because he took them out of the bondage of Egypt. I’m perplexed. Didn’t these God fearing Israelites standing under the mountain already know that everything that happens is directed by God? And if they already knew, what’s so fundamentally important in a commandment that merely reiterates what everyone already knew? Obviously, what resonates as the truth is that people assumed that what happens has no association with a Godly intervention. And the first of the Ten Commandments is opening up a new concept for mankind. They are now to understand that God will in certain situations intervene. And the proof is that their freedom from slavery wasn’t a random occurrence but a Godly intervention. And the first commandment’s main purpose is to inject into our belief system that God can and on occasion will intervene in the world He created.
Personally, the ability to question and grapple with my Judaism is an essential component of my faith. I find it disingenuous to place the blame of last week’s tragedies on a loving God. I don’t mind having too many questions and too few answers. For me, faith must be concurrent with being capable of believing what I’m practicing. I’m even comfortable with knowing that many may question my hypothesis and vehemently disagree with my ideas. I am not promoting a theory with the hope it enters the mainstream; I’m doing so as part of my New Years resolution and to be honest with myself.
So after all is said and done making a resolution may indeed be religiously inspiring. As Jews we have Rosh Hashanah and don’t have to wait until the secular New Year for new resolutions. However, I already used up my Rosh Hashanah allocations and don’t mind piggybacking on the secular holiday for extra New Year’s resolutions.
Rabbi Jack Engel