Divine Providence and Human Choice

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Joseph is languishing in prison. Then, at the beginning of this week’s sedra, a sequence of events takes place, leading to the most rapid, radical change of fortune in the Bible. Pharaoh has two dreams that trouble his spirit. None of his priestly retinue can decode the dreams in a way that satisfies him. Pharaoh’s butler remembers Joseph. Hurriedly he is taken from prison, given a wash and change of clothes, and brought before the ruler.

Not only does he interpret the dreams: he becomes the world’s first economist, inventing the theory of trade cycles. The dreams mean seven years of plenty followed by seven of scarcity. Having diagnosed the problem, Joseph proceeds to solve it: store surplus grain in the years of plenty, then use these reserves in the years of famine. Pharaoh invites him to implement the strategy, appointing him second in command in Egypt. Joseph moves from prisoner to Prime Minister in one effortless leap.

That is the narrative on the surface. One apparently insignificant detail, however, stands out. Pharaoh has had not one dream but two: one about cows, the other about ears of grain. Joseph explains that they are the same dream, conveying the same message through different images. Why then were there two? This is his explanation:

That Pharaoh has dreamed this twice means that God is firmly resolved on this plan, and very soon He will put it into effect.

Genesis 41:32

At first sight, this looks like just another piece of information. Understood in the full context of the Joseph narrative, however, it changes our entire understanding of events. For it was not Pharaoh alone who had two dreams with the same structure. So too did Joseph at the very beginning of the story: one about sheaves of wheat, the other about the sun, moon and stars.

At that stage we had no idea what the dreams signified. Were they a prophecy, or were they the fevered imagination of an over-indulged, overambitious young man? The tension of the Joseph narrative depends on this ambiguity. Only now, chapters and years later, are we given the vital information that a dream, repeated in different images, is not just a dream. It is a message sent by God about a future that will soon come to pass.

Why were we not given this information earlier? It may be that it was only later that God disclosed this to Joseph. Or perhaps Joseph has only now come to understand it. Or it may simply be a literary device to create and maintain tension in the unfolding plot. It may, though, signal something altogether deeper about the human condition seen through the eyes of faith.

It is only in retrospect that we understand the story of our life. Later events explain earlier ones. At the time, neither Joseph nor his brothers could know that his dreams were a form of prophecy: that he was indeed destined for greatness and that every misfortune he suffered had a part to play in their coming true. At first reading, the Joseph story reads like a series of random happenings. Only later, looking back, do we see that each event was part of a precise, providential plan to lead a young man from a family of nomadic shepherds to become second-in-command of Egypt.

This is a truth not about Joseph alone but about us also. We live our lives poised between a known past and an unknown future. Between them lies a present in which we make our choices. We decide between alternatives. Ahead of us are several diverging paths, and it is up to us which we follow. Only looking back does our life take on the character of a story. Only many years later do we realise which choices were fateful, and which irrelevant.

Things which seemed small at the time turn out to be decisive. Matters that once seemed important prove in retrospect to have been trivial. Seen from the perspective of the present, a life can appear to be a random sequence of disconnected events. It takes the passage of time for us to be able to look back and see the route we have taken, and the right and wrong turnings on the way.

The novelist Dan Jacobson puts this thought in the mind of the narrator of his novel, The Confessions of Josef Baisz:

Told one way, looking forward as it were, and proceeding from one event to the next, my story may seem to be a mere sequence, without design or purpose. Told another way, looking backwards, it can be made to resemble a plot, a plan, a cunningly involuted development leading to a necessary conclusion. Being both narrator and subject, how am I to know which way to look?

This is a truth not only about literature but about life. There is an intrinsic connection between time and meaning. The same series of events that once seemed mere happenstance becomes, with hindsight, the unfolding of a script.

This allows us to resolve one of the great paradoxes of the religious life – the seeming contradiction between divine providence and human free will. As Rabbi Akiva put it most famously: “All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.”

On the face of it, these two propositions cannot both be true. If God knows in advance that we are going to do X, then we are not free not to do it. If, on the other hand, we are genuinely free, then no one can know what we will choose before we choose it.

The paradox arises because of the nature of time. We live in time. God lives beyond it. An analogy: imagine going to see a soccer match. While the match is progress, you are on the edge of your seat. You do not know – no one knows – what is going to happen next. Now imagine watching a recording of the same match on television later that night. You know exactly what is going to happen next.

That knowledge does not mean that the players have had their freedom retroactively removed. All it means is that you are now watching the match from a different time perspective. When you were in the stadium, you were watching it in the present. On television you are watching it as an event in the past.

So it is with life itself. As we live it day by day, we choose in the present in order to shape what is for us an unknown, undetermined future. Only looking back are we able to see the consequences of our actions, and realize their part in the unfolding of our autobiography.

It is then, with hindsight, that we begin to see how providence has guided our steps, leading us to where God needs us to be. That is one meaning of the phrase spoken by God to Moses:

“Then I shall take away My hand, and you will see My back, but My face cannot not be seen.”

Exodus 33:23

Only looking back do we see God’s providence interwoven with our life, never looking forward (“My Face cannot not be seen”).

How subtly and deftly this point is made in the story of Joseph – the supreme example of a life in which human action and Divine intervention are inextricably entwined. It is all there in the verse about the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream. By delaying this information until later in Joseph’s life, the Torah shows us how a later event can force us to re-interpret an earlier one, teaching us the difference between two time perspectives: the present, and the understanding that only hindsight can bring to the past. It does so not by expounding complex philosophical propositions, but by the art of story-telling – a far simpler and more powerful way of conveying a difficult truth.

These two perspectives on time are embodied, in Judaism, in two different literatures. Through halachah, we learn to make choices in the present. Through aggadah we strive to understand the past. Together, these two ways of thinking constitute the twin hemispheres of the Jewish brain. We are free. But we are also characters in a Divinely-scripted drama. We choose, but we are also chosen. The Jewish imagination lives in the tension between these two frames of reference: between freedom and providence, our decisions and God’s plan.

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