Students of modern history are often impressed with the seeming inevitability of Germany’s role leading to World War II, on account of the harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. Indeed, the noted British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas are in fact being celebrated by governments eager to spend their way out of the current recession, called it a “Carthaginian Peace.” According to Keynes, the terms of the Treaty were too harsh and would not promote long term peace. Dan Rowling later (1951) considered the Treat an outright cause for World War II.
What role, if any, does the inevitability of history play in the events unfolding in the Torah? Are only historical events sometimes inevitable, or also spiritual-historical events?
Incidentally, while Keynesian Economics do find their appropriate application in economic policy, historical developments may not be as inevitable as they appear when reading a well paced, thrilling but accurate account of history. Indeed, there is a whole field out there of “counterfactual history,” which analyses how history could have turned out different, i.e., how history is not inevitable. Does the Torah consider history not inevitable?
Arguably, there is no single answer to all historical events. Some events are inevitable, while others are not. Regarding many key events, however, we may fruitfully speculate whether or not they were, in fact, inevitable.
Clearly, generally, events such as the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai had to happen. They had been foretold and promised unto Avraham and Moshe, and play a most central role in the Jewish understanding of the purpose for which the World was created. Thus, the very first Rashi in Bereishit quotes a Midrash that sees in the word בְּרֵאשִׁית (rather than the alternative simpler בִּתְּחִילָה, both meaning “in the beginning”) an allusion to the Torah, which is also called רֵאשִׁית. The first verse of the Torah would correspondingly mean “on account of the thing, which is called רֵאשִׁית, G”d created heaven and earth.”
Pharao’s role in the months leading up to the Exodus would seem to be another example of an inevitable event, as G”d would harden the Pharao’s heart (Shemot 7:3). This troubled numerous exegetes greatly, as it would impinge upon the Pharao’s free will. Thus, while Rashi explains that the Pharao lost his free will subsequent to his many sins, and henceforth G”d was leading him to his destruction, knowing that he wouldn’t truly repent, Ramban added that (a) the Pharao’s heart wasn’t hardened during all plagues, hence he had had enough chances to make alternate choices, and (b) the hardening was not an act of denial of free will, but rather a strengthening of the Pharao’s ability to exercise his free will in the face of great displays of the Divine Might (the ten plagues). Both explanations lead us to conclude that the Israelites’ spectacular exodus from Egypt was not inevitable; they could have been let go peacefully.
So far, we have touched upon some important events, but were the major Biblical heroes inevitable? Could Avraham, Yits’haq or Ya’aqov, Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshu’a, David and others have made very different choices and correspondingly have led to different world histories, or were they and their choices inevitable? The question is no small matter, for, on the one hand, these actors were crucial in the establishment of the Jewish People and their settlement in Biblical Israel, but on the other hand, making these actors inevitable robs them of part of their free will and thus of their humanity, and may threaten their status as role models who can be partially emulated.
The second chapter of Shemot begins with a remarkable verse:
וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִ֖ישׁ מִבֵּ֣ית לֵוִ֑י וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־בַּת־לֵוִֽי:
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.
The verse is remarkable, for while the woman subsequently bore her husband the most famous Jewish child in history, the parents are anonymous. Later (6:20), we will learn that Moshe’s father was ‘Amram, who had married his aunt Yocheved, but here, the parents are anonymous, why?
The Maharal, in his Gur Aryei, ponders this question and answers that Moshe’s birth was unlike any other birth, for Moshe’s birth was inevitable. G”d had promised Avraham that after four hundred years (counted starting with the birth of Yits’haq), his descendants would be redeemed from their enslavement. Hence, the appearance of the Redeemer, the leader who would shepherd them out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai and later to Israel, was inevitable. Had ‘Amram not married Yocheved, another couple would have born Moshe, but Moshe would be born. This impression is reinforced by the fact that, unlike most biblical personalities, Moshe basically grew up in the non-Israelite home of the Pharao’s daughter (save for his first – likely about two – years of life, when he was with his “wet nurse” – his mother, actually).
Other biblical heroes were not inevitable, but Moshe was. Now Moshe remains a role model, for within the constraints of his Divinely imposed leadership, he made many choices and was consistently an honest and humble, most spiritual man, but he did not make the choice of becoming a leader – that choice was made for him, including some necessary steps leading him up to his election as leader.
Remarkably, the Midrash records an interesting disagreement regarding the age when Avraham recognized the autarchy of G”d:
ובן כמה שנים הכיר אברהם את בוראו בן מ”ח שנה הכיר את בוראו ריש לקיש אמר בן שלש שנים דכתיב עקב מנין עק”ב ואברהם חיה קע”ה שנים נמצאת למד שבן שלש שנים הכיר את בוראו
And at what age did Avraham recognize his Creator? At forty-eight years of age he recognized his Creator. Reish Laqish says: at three years of age, for it is written (Bereishit 26:5) “because (“עֵקֶב”) [that Abraham hearkened to My voice]”; the numerical value of עֵקֶב is 172, and Avraham lived for 175 years, hence you learn that he was three when he came to recognize his Creator [and served Him for 172 years until his death]. (Midrash Rabba Bereishit 95:3)
Recognizing the truth of monotheism is not usually associated with three year olds. It requires a philosophical maturity and a well trained inquisitive mind, to break out of the mold imposed by a pagan society for whom the existence of multiple deities is a fact, and a fact which one should utilize to his advantage by bribing the gods, or suffer their terrible wrath. Why does Reish Laqish accept that Avraham was a mere three years old when he came of his own accord to the conclusion that there is only one G”d and that He runs the world? Doesn’t the anonymous first opinion, which claims that Avraham was forty-eight at the time, make more sense?
Perhaps the disagreement relates to what we discovered regarding Moshe. Perhaps the disagreement is about whether Avraham becoming a monotheist was inevitable. Was it likely that someone, steeped in the pagan society of those days, would overcome his education and culture and recognize the Truth, that there is only one and only G”d? Or was Avraham’s monotheism a necessary, inevitable redemption for the world, which had failed to fulfil its Noachide mission, and needed an important spiritual boost, was it to remain in existence?
It seems that not only can historical events be inevitable, so too can spiritual-historical events. However, just like historical events may seem inevitable when, in fact, they were not, so too with spiritual-historical events and actors. Mostly, they were the product of their own high standards of ethical, moral and spiritual behaviour. Yits’haqs, Ya’aqovs and Yosefs do not appear by the dozen on the stage of history, but are exceptional characters who, through their personal dedication became great leaders of our people and left a heritage for all generations to learn from. In fact, even Moshe, the inevitable leader, and Avraham, if he was inevitable, had additional, non inevitable qualities, which make them, too, role models for all subsequent generations.
Note: I am indebted to Rabbi Yehoshu’a Hartman, who edited the Maharal’s works for Mekhon Yerushalayim, for the reference to the above quoted comment of the Maharal.