Destiny is a seductive concept. The idea that our personal and even national history is somehow predetermined can be comforting, especially when hazards abound and the best path forward is hard to discern. Historian Niall Ferguson surveys the tenacity of deterministic thinking among religious and secular thinkers through the ages in his book Virtual History. Marxists have often matched religious fundamentalists in their conviction that history is governed by inexorable forces and their sense that personal agency is an illusion.
Ferguson responds to this fatalistic tendency with chapter after chapter of counterfactual accounts—moments when a different decision by an individual or group could easily have changed the course of history. What if the American revolutionaries, many of whom were loyal to the Crown just months earlier—had found a way to settle their differences without violence in 1776? Would American slavery have ended earlier and without civil war in the 19th century? Would the British Empire have survived the 20th? Ferguson’s point is not to promote a parlor game of what if, but rather to provoke readers into taking responsibility for major decisions in their own lives, and in their society.
Given the enormous uncertainty about how next week’s election will play out and the staggering ramifications of various outcomes, it remains tempting to throw one’s hands up and say, “what will be will be.” Of course—spoiler alert—that will not be my take away, but don’t we believe that “all is in the hands of heaven”?
Parashat Lekh Lekha presents a zigzag account of divine providence and human agency. God seems to be in control, commanding Abram to set out for “a land that I will show you.” But hadn’t Abram actually begun the trip of his own initiative last week? In chapter 14 Abram responds to Lot’s capture by taking charge and rushing to battle without so much as a prayer. Thanksgiving can wait until the work is done. If God is really in control, then the strings seem quite loose.
What to make of miracles? They are among the most dramatic and beloved features of biblical narratives, but are distant from what most believe about reality. Wait, are they? Many modern people operate on a split screen, their rational analyses coexisting with magical thinking about fate, luck and miracles. Neuroscience has alerted us to the presence of parallel response systems in the brain. The prefrontal cortex engages in rational analysis, while the limbic system governs emotional life. So there may be an organic basis for inconsistent interpretations of reality. Is there a way to integrate our thought processes, to reconcile irrational belief in miracles with data driven analysis? If so, can this help us relate to Parashat Noah as more than myth?
Consider the approach of Nahmanides (Ramban, Gerona, 1194-1270) the great scholar of halakhah and kabbalah who served also as physician and communal leader. It is difficult to extract a systematic theology from Ramban because he intentionally veils his esoteric ideas and scatters elements of them across many different works. Fortunately we have assistance from modern scholars, most recently Moshe Halbertal with his masterful book, Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism (Yale UP). Chapter 4, “Miracles and the Chain of Being,” draws on Ramban’s Torah Commentary as well as Sha’ar Ha-Gemul, the final chapter of his book Torat Ha-Adam, which presents Jewish beliefs and practices around death and the afterlife.
Ramban’s version of modern science was a popular theory that the world was generally governed by the constellations. Before you dismiss this as astrology (which, I concede, it is), consider that this concept might be more akin to physics. Constellations are vast celestial systems that demonstrate order and predictability in the universe, and therefore model the physical laws that govern reality. Ramban asserts, however, that there are exceptions. The Land of Israel evades this type of control, as do the original and ultimate eras of creation, and so too do certain righteous individuals. These exceptions link reality to the realm of miracles.
Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this message. The possibility of calamity makes moments of triumph precious and worth pursuing.
The same narrative device is employed by the Torah. Dazzling victories are paired with ignominious defeats. Consider, for example, three victorious moments in the Torah: The dedication of the Tabernacle; the declaration by Israel at Sinai that they will “heed and hear” God’s teaching; and God’s proclamation at the end of Creation that all of it was “very good.”
Each moment completes an arduous process, signaling blessing and joy. Yet the Torah barely allows one to celebrate before delivering a devastating narrative twist. What does this say about the nature of victory, and what can it teach us about resilience in a pandemic?