The Future – A Sealed Book?
Rabbi Len Levin
If you were handed a sealed envelope that you had reason to believe contained an infallible prediction of the future course of your life — or of the world’s political history of the next twenty years — would you open it?
This week’s portion Vayehi is unique in its orthography of all portions in the Torah. Whereas the beginning of most portions is indicated by a clear paragraph break, with the words beginning on a new line or after a couple of inches of blank space, Vayehi begins after only a two-letter space separating it from the previous text. The rabbis of the third century interpreted this anomaly: “Jacob our patriarch sought to disclose the end of days, but it was sealed off from him” (Genesis Rabbah 96:1).
Indeed, in the continuation of the portion, Jacob gathers his sons and tells them, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1). But the blessings that follow are largely generic and give precious little information of future events. To complicate matters further, two-thirds through the blessings Jacob interjects, apparently out of nowhere, “I hope for Your deliverance, O Lord!” (49:18).
In their interpretation of these anomalies of this week’s portion, the rabbis were giving a classic expression of the Jewish ambivalence about Messianism. The Messianic hope is one of the outstanding expressions of Jewish spirituality. We are all too conscious of the shortfall between our ideal image of the way the world should be and the reality of what it actually is. In times of prosperity, we cast a searchlight of critical examination on the imperfections that still exist, the inequities of distribution of the world’s resources, the injustices that persist, and demand that they be corrected. In times of crisis and darkest despair, we do not abandon hope but project an image of salvation and perfected reality to draw us forward and overcome the dire threat. In each case, we affirm that history must be redeemed, that it must culminate in a scenario of Messianic perfection in which the imperfections of the present are overcome.
But at the same time, Jewish tradition is highly suspicious of any real-and-present claim that so-and-so is the Messiah, or of specific scenarios predicting the coming of the Messiah by a specified date. It would be comforting to be granted the certainty that salvation would be coming by such-and-such a date. Alas, such predictions have almost invariably been disappointed.
What is more, they can lead to laziness and complacency. A promise of salvation from above can rob us of the incentive to put forth our own efforts toward salvation. The early Zionists protested against otherworldly Messianic promises and insisted that it was up to us to carve our destiny. A song of that period proclaims: “No miracle happened for us; we found no cruse of oil. We hewed the rock till there was blood, and there was light!”
The same Messianic ambivalence attends our view of the State of Israel. On the one hand, it is at least in a minimal sense the fulfillment of the hopes and prayers of Jews for millennia — that they should return to their ancestral land and regain independence and dignity in the sight of all nations. On the other hand, it is a human creation and like all such a creature of imperfection, subject to the implicit critique of a Messianic perfectionist standard. It would be wrong to deny it partial participation in the Messianic vision; but it would be equally wrong to say it is in its present form the complete achievement of that vision.
Maybe Jacob, in the rabbis’ interpretation, was caught between these two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, he wanted to comfort his children by revealing the scenario of their redemption. On the other hand, he knew that any such promise would be misleading or illusory. They would have to work out their redemption on their own-but never giving up the hope that redemption was ultimately in store. (Hence, that digressing exclamation: “I hope for Your deliverance, O Lord!”).
So, too, in our own lives. It would be comforting to be handed that sealed envelope, in which the scenario of our future was all written down. But knowing it in advance would rob it of a great deal of the excitement, and would rob us of the responsibility of forging that future ourselves. The future — like the orthography of Vayehi — is sealed. It is up to us to write it.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.