History, the study of cause and effect in the annals of humankind, has been a serious challenge for honest historians. In many ways, interpreting history is conjecture. It is more what one would like to believe happened than what actually occurred which motivates many a historian (Benjamin Franklin). After all, how can any historian ever know what really was the cause and effect in a specific instance? Sometimes, what we believe to be the cause is, rather, the effect.
Our sages draw our attention to this phenomenon when they deal with the sale of Joseph and his emancipation from prison. Referring to the words, “A definite period was set to the world to spend in darkness” (Iyov 28:3), the Midrash states: “A definite number of years was fixed for Joseph to spend in prison, in darkness. When the appointed time came: “And it came to pass at the end of two years and Pharaoh dreamed a dream…’” (Bereshit 41:1, Midrash Rabbah)
Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr, in his monumental work, Ohr Gedalyah, points out that this observation radically differs from the traditional, academic way of dealing with historical events.
Reading the story in the traditional way, we would no doubt conclude that because Pharaoh dreamed a dream which required an interpretation, Joseph, known to be a man with prophetic insights into dream interpretation, was asked to come and see Pharaoh. After having successfully solved the dreams, he was not only freed but elevated to the position of second-in-command of Egypt. This would mean that Pharaoh’s dream caused Joseph’s freedom.
A careful read of our Midrash, however, suggests the reverse. It was because Joseph had to be freed and become the viceroy of Egypt that Pharaoh had to have a dream. The cause was, in fact, the effect.
As mentioned before, this approach opens a completely new way of understanding history. Judaism suggests that at certain times God sends emanations to this world so as to awaken human beings to act, just as Pharaoh received his dreams in order that Joseph’s imprisonment would come to an end.
A later example of this is the story of Chanukah. The Jews knew that logically there was no chance of a successful uprising against the Greeks, but God created a notion of revolt within the minds of the Maccabees. The greatness of these few Jews was manifest in their correct reaction to this heavenly directive. They realized what needed to be done, however preposterous.
Midrashic literature often compares the Greek empire to “darkness which blinded the eyes of the Jews” (“Choshech ze Yavan“, “Darkness that is Greece”). The traditional interpretation is that Jews in the Maccabean period were blinded by the Greeks’ worship of the body and followed their example.
It may, however, have a much deeper meaning. The Greeks were also the inventors of historical interpretation. Greek thinkers were among the first to try and understand history in its more scientific form as reflected in the need to search for cause and effect. From the point of view of the Midrash, this approach blinded the Jews from sometimes reading history as divine emanations and the human response to them. It misconstrued the deeper meaning of history, reversed cause and effect, and darkened the clear insight of the Jews.
One of the most mysterious aspects of the human psyche is the dimension of motivation and taste. Human beings suddenly hear an inner voice or feel a mysterious pull to do something the source of which they do not understand. This is true not only regarding human actions but even taste and preference. History is replete with examples of human beings radically changing their taste in art and music. Melodies are considered to be superb and irreplaceable; then, half a century later, they lose favor. So it is with art, fashion and even the color of our wallpaper.
There are no rational explanations for these phenomena (notwithstanding various scientific suggestions). We would argue that all of them are the result of divine emanations communicated to our world. While it is difficult to explain why these divine messages come, perhaps their main purpose, particularly regarding music and art, is to offer man a feeling of renewal and an insight into the infinite possibilities of God’s creation. Some messages may be a divine response to human beings’ earlier deeds or moral condition. The sudden predilections for more aggressive forms of music or art may be a warning that man has abated his earlier dignity.
In the case of emanations, as with the Maccabees, the main challenge is in “hearing” the message, correctly interpreting it and subsequently knowing what it demands of us. This itself requires divine assistance and moral integrity and is not available to all. (In fact, it can be dangerous.)
Throughout history, Jews have experienced many divine emanations. Several of them, cited in the latter part of Tanach, allude to the coming of the Mashiach at specific times. (See, for example, the book of Daniel.) Some of these dates are long behind us and Mashiach has not appeared. This should not surprise us. Dates of Mashiach’s arrival, as cited in Jewish sources, were in no way final statements. They were divine signals that at these times the world would be more conducive to the coming of Mashiach, but they were not guarantees of his arrival. When humankind failed to respond in the appropriate religious and moral manner, the special moment passed with no outcome.
It is easy to recognize in this day and age that we, too, are confronted with new and powerful happenings which may be emanations from above. One cannot deny the unique events which have transpired in Israel over the last seventy years. Many of them, the good ones as well as the dire ones are difficult to explain by the conventional standards of historical interpretations. Perhaps it may behoove us to view much what is happening today in Israel as a divine message that there is need for a radical change of heart regarding our identity, our Jewish connection, the moral quality of our society and Judaism at large. It may be worthwhile to contemplate this possibility and act accordingly.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel