by R. Gil Student
The Future is Full of Mitzvos
The Hebrew year we have just begun is 5784, ה׳תשפ״ד. To mark the year, I will spend time studying and teaching the classic midrashic work, Parashas Derakhim, so that it will be a year of Parashas Derakhim (תהא שנת פרשת דרכים). Rav Yehudah Rosannes was the rabbi of Constantinople and the chief rabbi (chakham bashi) of the Ottoman Empire in the early eighteenth century. He was a leading halakhic authority of his generation. His lengthy essays on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah were adapted by his colleague, Rav Ya’akov Culi, into a running commentary titled Mishneh Le-Melekh. This commentary is a classic, the paragon of brilliant Talmudic analysis. Rav Rosannes also published a classic book of midrashic essays titled Parashas Derakhim in which he contrasts midrashim and reconciles them through Talmudic argumentation. His writing transcends genres, bringing together halakhah and aggadah, Talmud and Midrash, to speak to each other. He was not the first to do this. Indeed, he frequently quotes Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (author of the Yefeh To’ar commentary on midrash) and Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (author of a super-commentary on Rashi) who both follow this approach, as well. However, Parashas Derakhim is so well organized and well argued that it has become the paradigm of that genre.
What follows is the first installment of Parashas Derakhim in a series I am calling “Meta Midrash.”
The High Holiday season is serious but joyful. The seriousness comes from the spirit of divine judgment, of weighing the sins and merits of every person. And yet we rejoice on Rosh Hashanah and sing together on Yom Kippur, expressing joy. This joy is surprising because we are realists and we know that along with our many merits, we also have many flaws. An analysis of conflicting midrashim shows that this optimism parallels a divine optimism within judgment. It reflects an important perspective that we need to have when looking at ourselves and at others.
Rav Yehudah Rosannes (Parashas Derakhim, no. 4) quotes a midrash which teaches the the tribe of Levi was not enslaved in Egypt (Shemos Rabbah 5:16). Why should this one tribe escape the decree given to Avraham that his descendants would be slaves in a strange land (Gen. 15:13)? Another midrash explains the divine logic: Because God saw that in the future the tribe of Levi would serve in the Tabernacle and the Temple, therefore they were not subject to servitude in Egypt (quoted in Da’as Zekeinim, Ex. 5:4). According to this midrash, God takes into account a person’s future actions and rewards him accordingly. Similarly, Shemos Rabbah (3:4) quotes Moshe asking God how he could approach Pharaoh on behalf of the Jews who have no merit to deserve redemption. God answered that He will redeem them because in the future they will accept the Torah at Mount Sinai.
However, another midrash insists that God does not judge us based on future actions. When Hagar fled Avraham’s home and Yishmael was dying of thirst, God planned to help them but the angels objected. How can God save Yishmael, who would kill many Jews? Similarly, when the Jews were in Egypt, God knew that they would eventually worship the Golden Calf? How could he help the future sinners? God replied that He only judges people based on where they are at that time, not based on future actions. That is why He saved Yishmael and why He redeemed the Jews from Egypt (Bereishis Rabbah 3:2). If God does not take into account future actions, why did He redeem the Jews from Egypt because they would accept the Torah in the future and why did he save the tribe of Levi from servitude in Egypt?
Rav Rosannes reconciles these conflicting ideas based on Shemos Rabbah (2:1), which says that God was “slow to anger” (erekh apa’im) to the Jews in Egypt by leaning toward mercy and looking at the good that they would do in the future and not at the bad. In His great mercy, God gives us credit for our future mitzvos. Even if we might not be righteous now, God sees the future and knows if we will be more religiously worthy at a future time. Rav Rosannes sidesteps the conflict between divine foreknowledge and free will, and assumes that whatever resolution you find most compelling applies here. Regardless, God knows our past, current and future merits, which He incorporates into his calculations now. In contrast, even though God knows what sins we will commit in the future, He does not take them into account until they take place. He looks to the good future and not the bad future.
God saw that the tribe of Levi would serve in the Tabernacle and therefore exempted them from servitude in Egypt. He saw that the Jews would accept the Torah at Mount Sinai, in which merit He redeemed them from Egypt. But He did not look at Yishmael’s future sins nor at the Jews’ future sin with the Golden Calf. When God judges us, He sees us as full of positive potential even though He well knows that we will stumble, as well.
Another midrash (Shemos Rabbah 1:36) explains the verse: “God saw the children of Israel and God knew” (Ex. 2:25). God saw that the Jews would rebel at the Sea of Reeds (Ps. 106:7) or worship the Golden Calf but He knew that they would say “This is my God” (Ex. 15:2) or “We will do and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7). Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (Yefeh To’ar, ad loc., s.v. va-yeda) is puzzled by this because why would God take into account future actions when deciding whether the Jews were worthy of redemption from Egypt? Rav Rosannes explains that God saw the future sin at the sea and did not take it into account, because He does not hold us liable for future sins. But He knew that we would accept the Torah wholeheartedly and took that into account, because He rewards us for future good deeds.
When God looks at us, He sees our past and our present as they are. When He looks at our future, He blocks out the bad and looks at the good. To God, we are all full of potential for goodness, for positive actions and interactions. There are many paths open before us. God adopts a positive, optimistic perspective by focusing on the good paths we take. When we look at ourselves, we have to be realistic about where we are and how we got there. But when we look at the future, we should focus on the good we can and will do. The many opportunities to grow and to give, to learn and to do. When we focus on all the good things that lie ahead, we automatically gain a positive outlook, an optimistic attitude. Why shouldn’t we rejoice on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we have so much good to look forward to? Perhaps this gives us insight into the Gemara (Megillah 6a) that just like a pomegranate is full of seeds, every Jew is full of mitzvos. When looking to the future, we only see mitzvos.