Patterns and unpredictability

Patterns and unpredictability

Again we come to the end of a book in Torah, traditionally a time of great excitement. Medieval Jews composed poetry for the occasion — couplets, usually, noting the fact that they were finishing one book and beginning the next. The great legalist Jacob ben Asher, however, supplies a philosophical consideration: “Praise to the God who foretells the end from the beginning.”

Therein lies a mystery. If God knows everything, then from the time the universe began, God must know how everything turns out ever after.

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

Some medieval manuscript copiers changed tsafu’i (Hebrew for “foreseen”) to tsafun (“hidden away”) — the lesser claim that the consequences of actions are hidden not just from our sight but even from God’s. Nonetheless, the Mishna seems to have recognized that what we do is in part determined and in part not.

But what part is determined and what part not? To some extent, the answer lies in this week’s portion. As Genesis concludes, we find Jacob assembling his sons to bless them. But instead of blessings, he offers oracular statements of each one’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 are descriptions of personality traits he has observed in his children, the patterns by which they live. Indeed, we all have such patterns. Whether by nature or nurture 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. That indeed is our glory. The Maharal of Prague identified this capacity to act contrary to our usual course of action as evidence of our being made in the image of God.

Therein lies the significance of Joseph. His story is largely over by the time this parsha gets under way; it could easily have wrapped up the Joseph narrative and ended the book with the blessings, a synoptic statement of Israel’s destiny. But Genesis ends with Joseph. A final statement of his death makes up the last sentence in the book — a decision not lost on the Tosafot, who uses it to cite Joseph’s equivalence to the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

What Joseph adds is the fact that he epitomizes the human capacity to transcend personality patterns. Although spoiled as a child and self-centered, 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 with them or despite them is not. To be quintessentially human is to be gifted with the ability to override responses that seem hardwired and to substitute actions that would make God proud of who we are.

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