The counterfactuals of Torah
TorahParshat Tetzave

The counterfactuals of Torah

Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

(File photo)
(File photo)

What would have happened if JFK survived that fateful Friday in Dallas? Or if the South won at Gettysburg? These questions have inspired film and literature, exploring the fascinating territory of “the what-ifs of history.” At the same time, there is a healthy debate among contemporary historians arguing whether alternate history is merely an entertaining distraction or a valuable tool to better appreciate that the paths of history are, in fact, far from inevitable. Indeed, there is actually a rich tradition of considering counterfactuals that can be demonstrated in the works of a number of ancient Roman historians (including Plutarch and Livy) who wrote about the counterfactuals of Alexander the Great having lived to confront Rome!

It has become increasingly clear to me that considering counterfactuals is a significant, if unrecognized, tool in classical Jewish thought. A familiar passage in the Pesach Haggadah, “had God not taken us out of Egypt, we our children and our grandchildren would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt,” is nothing short of an open invitation to explore what that path not taken might look like, and other sources contemplate the implications of scenarios in which Moshe would have led the Jews into Israel, King Hezekiah had become the Messiah or if Esau had received a different education that changed his life’s trajectory.

One of the most elaborate counterfactual Torah scenarios involves the Mishkan, the temporary sanctuary that accompanied our ancestors in the wilderness and is the major focus of the second half of Shemot. While the Torah presents the command to create the Mishkan prior to its description of the story of the Golden Calf, in a number of places (Shemot 30:16, 29:1 and Devarim 10:8) Rashi insists that this presentation is not sequential, and that in fact, the Mishkan was commanded as a reaction to the Golden Calf. An even more dramatic presentation of this idea is developed by Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (c.1475-1550) in the Kavvanot HaTorah, the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, where he suggests that the shadow remains of a pre-Golden Calf system of divine worship can be discerned in Exodus 19 and 24. In those sections, the implications are of a much simpler form of worship, where an earthen altar suffices rather than an elaborate sanctuary, where sacrifices are all based on optional pledges rather than formal obligations, and where there is no formal priestly caste clad in magnificent vestments: an alternate history of how Jews would connect to God.

In other words, while a path not taken of divine service existed, the Jews needed a highly disciplined, aesthetic and structured system to compensate for the unaddressed spiritual needs that exploded in the Golden Calf episode.

While counterfactuals contribute to a richer appreciation of history and the turns that it makes, from a religious perspective there is an even greater lesson to be learned from this mode of thinking. Maimonides (Hilchot Teshuva ch.5-6) makes a very strong case about the centrality of free will in Judaism. Without the basic assumption that we have agency in the choices we make in life, the very notion of accountability and responsibility lack all significance, and the whole idea of teshuva — that we have the ability of repent from our sins — is rendered nonsensical. The counterfactuals of Torah reveal how significant the stakes of our decisions are: that God has left momentous choices in our hands whose ramifications may impact not just ourselves, but the course of history itself. PJC

Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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