At the beginning of Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert
speculates on the essential difference between human beings and animals. He
concludes: Only humans plan for the future. No animal ever delayed gratification
in anticipation of some future benefit.
All human beings have this
capacity to set future goals and strive toward them. But the Jewish people have
a unique future orientation, despite possessing the richest past of any people.
Our sages divide human history into three parts. The first is referred to as the
2,000 years of tohu ve’vohu (formlessness); the second, which began when Avraham
was 52, is called the 2,000 years of Torah. With Avraham, the stage was set for
the world to begin moving in the direction of the ideal form for which it was
created, as revealed by the Torah.
In the natural world, the past
determines the future, just as the genetic material of an animal determines its
development. But in the world of Torah, the world of purpose, the present is
determined by the future.
Thus in the world of nature, represented by the
constellations, Avraham and Sarah could not have children.
they were the progenitors of the Jewish people, they were lifted above the
constellations, and Sarah bore Yitzchak.
Avraham is presented in the
Torah almost as a man without a past. He first takes center stage with the
divine command to go to the “Land that I will show you” – an ideal Land always
before you, but never fully attained. Nachmanides famously asks why the Torah
omits all Avraham’s past history. In that omission is found a hint that what is
crucial about Abraham is his future, not his past.
The Gemara asks:
“Where is Avraham hinted at in the Torah?” and finds the answer in the verse,
“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation
(b’hibaram). The letters of the word b’hibaram are the letters of Avraham. Just
as the heavens and earth were created ex nihilo, so in some sense was Avraham.
He is not a creature of his past – i.e., of his biological father Terach – but
rather of his future.
The degree to which the present is nourished by the
future is hinted at in the first word of the Torah: Bereishit.
explains Bereishit as meaning that the world was created for all those things
the Torah designates as reishit (the first) – including the Jewish people and
THE BITTER enslavement of Egypt was designed to destroy the
ability of the Israelites to think about the future, or to contemplate the goals
of their lives. The Haggada quotes the verse, “And [Hashem] saw our affliction,
and our burdens, and our unbearable pressure [under which we labored].” “The
first two terms refer to the separation of husbands from wives and the slaying
of the male children – in other words, the destruction of the most powerful
connection to the future. And “our unbearable pressure” refers, according to the
Vilna Gaon, to the lack of any time to contemplate anything more than how to
survive the present moment. We were thereby reduced to a brutish
The loss of time for reflection and contemplation was not just
a result of the intense labor, it was its goal. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato
(Ramchal), in his classic work The Path of the Just, stresses this
When Pharoah commanded, “Intensify the men’s labors ...” (Exodus
5:9), Ramchal writes, “His intention was... to strip their hearts of all thought
by means of the enduring, interminable nature of their labor.”
the Jews in Egypt lacked any time or capacity to engage in what The Path of the
Just describes as the first topic of contemplation: to “consider what
constitutes the true Good that a person should choose, and the true Evil that he
should flee from.”
THE REDEMPTION from Egypt was necessitated by the
future – i.e., the fact that the entire Jewish people would receive the Torah at
Sinai. And it contained within it the gift of once again being able to
contemplate the future.
The first mitzva given to the Jews in Egypt,
after the bitter servitude had ended – the Sanctification of the Moon – hints at
this gift. The lunar cycle represents our ability for renewal and growth, the
ability to escape the stasis of an animal existence in which everything is
One group in Egypt, however, never lost its ability to
contemplate the future: the women. They would beautify themselves in order to
arouse their husbands when they returned from the field to produce a new
generation. Their actions were quintessentially human. Animals reproduce, but
that reproduction is not intentional; it is the result of an instinctual act
determined by a preset genetic code.
Human reproduction, by contrast,
involves an element of faith. Philosopher Leon Kass, in his eloquent rejection
of human cloning, emphasizes this: “When a couple normally chooses to procreate,
the partners are saying yes to the emergence of new life in its novelty – are
saying yes not only to having a child, but also to having whatever child this
child turns out to be (emphasis added). In accepting our finitude, in opening
ourselves to our replacement, we tacitly confess the limits of our
The child born of that union will live “a life never before
enacted. Though sprung from a past, [he or she will] take an uncharted course
into the future.” (Not so the product of cloning, argues Kass, who is at some
level a commodity, produced to ensure a certain result, and born with a set of
expectations (not hopes) based on a life already lived.) If every act of
procreation involves an act of faith, how much more so in the circumstances of
Egypt, (or the ghettos and death camps of the Holocaust era) when newborns might
be cast into the river (or impaled on the bayonet of a Nazi butcher).
highly valued was the ability of the righteous women to imagine a subsequent
generation – for faith can extend no further than our capacity to imagine – that
the mirrors they used to beautify themselves were melted down to form one of the
vessels in the Tabernacle.
In their merit, we are told, were the Jewish
people redeemed to realize their destiny at Sinai, and given the gift of being
once again able to contemplate the purpose of their lives.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a
regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.
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