Pesach: the Gift of the Future
At the beginning of Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert speculates on the essential difference between human beings and animals. He conclusion: Only humans plan for the future. No animal ever delayed gratification in anticipation of some future benefit.
Gilbert’s insight was preceded by our Sages. At the beginning of parashas Tazria, the Midrash quotes a verse from Tehillim: Achor ve’kedem tzartani. . . (Tehillim139:5). Reish Lakish interprets achor to refer to the last day – yom acharon – ve’kedem to refer to the first day. Even the animals have a first day, but only human beings have a yom acharon, a future to which they are striving.
Everything that an animal will ever be is included in its initial genetic material, whereas a human being has the potential to change his nature according to his capacity to reflect on the purpose of his life.
ALL HUMAN BEINGS have this capacity to set future goals and strive towards 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 period is referred to as the two thousand years of tohu ve’vohu (formlessness); the second period, which begins when Avraham is 52, is called the 2,000 years of Torah. With Avraham, the stage is 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 every animal determines its development. If one mixes two chemicals, under certain conditions, the reaction is predictable. 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, so 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 does the Written Torah omit all Avraham’s past history and how he became worthy of the Divine command? 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 to 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 to in the very first word of the Torah: Bereishit. Rashi explains Bereishit as meaning that the world was created for all those things that the Torah designates as reishit (the first) – including the Jewish people and the Torah. The world was only created because in the future the Jewish people would accept the Torah.
THE BITTER ENSLAVEMENT OF EGYPT was deliberately designed to destroy the ability of the Israelites to think about the future, or to contemplate the goals of their lives in any way. The Haggadah 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 Pharoah’s separating husbands from wives and killing of all the male children — i.e., his efforts to separate the Jews in Egypt from their most tangible connection to the future. And “our unbearable pressure” refers, according to the Vilna Gaon, to the lack of any time to breathe or to contemplate anything more than how to survive the present moment. We were thereby reduced to a brutish existence.
The loss of any 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 Ramchal 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 the gift to the Jewish people of once again being able to contemplate the future.
The first mitzvah given to the Jewish people in Egypt, after the bitter servitude had ended – the Sanctification of the Moon – hints to this gift. The lunar cycle, based on the waxing and waning of the moon, represents our ability for renewal and growth, the ability to escape the stasis of animal existence in which everything is preordained at birth.
One group in Egypt, however, never lost their 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 and contemplation of the future. Philosopher Leon Kass, in his eloquent rejection of human cloning, emphasizes this aspect of human procreation: “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 the newborn infant might be cast into the river (or impaled on a bayonet by 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 which is not yet present – that the mirrors they used to beautify themselves were subsequently melted down to form one of the vessels in the Tabernacle. On 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.
Chag Kasher ve’Sameach
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, April 17.