Think again: The gift of the future

Enslaved Israelite women in Egypt never forgot the value of self-beautification to arouse their husbands and produce offspring.

pregnancy womb 311 (photo credit: Tzipora Ivry)
pregnancy womb 311
(photo credit: Tzipora Ivry)
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.
But because 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.
Rashi 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 Torah.
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 existence.
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 point.
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.”
Above all, 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 preordained.
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 control.”
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).
So 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.
Hag Kasher ve’Sameach.

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.