For Sh’mot–No Reverse Gears

Rashi makes a very cryptic statement in a comment on this parsha. The eighth verse begins, וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ־חָדָשׁ עַל־מִצְרָיִם, And a new king arose over Egypt, to which Rashi explains, (רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל, חַד אָמַר חָדָשׁ מַמָּשׁ, וְחַד אָמַר שֶׁנִּתְחַדְּשׁוּ גְּזֵרוֹתָיו (ש”ר א:ח;סוטה יא ע”א, Rav and Shmuel–one says it was actually a new king and the other says the he (the former king) issued new decrees (Sh’mot Rabba 1:8, Sotah, 11a).

The deeply profound lesson in this is that it really doesn’t matter what the actual cause is, nor does casting blame even begin to fashion a solution (it doesn’t even matter who said what!).  No matter the justification, no one is able to move backwards in time and change what happened. Maybe had Yosef (or one of his brothers) been able to forge a miracle and keep the former, friendly Pharoah alive, or, in the other scenario, had Yosef or one of his brothers managed to negotiate with Pharoah and convince him to keep his Israelite-friendly policies in place, we never would have suffered slavery, but does it really matter? Whether or not that or similar propositions would have saved our ancestors the pain and suffering is moot since we can’t go back and change history.

Rather, our only exit from Egyptian slavery was to wait it out, embrace our redemption when it finally arrived and, as it were, get with the program.  And even that immeasurable improvement in our lives did not happen instantly. We were not returned to the former luxury of exalted guests in the world’s wealthiest nation, but rather we endured forty years of seemingly random and unproductive wandering in a desert (granted, we did experience some peak events such as Matan Torah, receiving the Torah, and building the Mishkan, the mobile, temporary Temple, but we were ready to enter The Land within the first two years.)  And even our eventual establishing ourselves in the Land of Israel did not finish the project and return everything to perfection–that process, millennia later, remains ongoing.

In many significant ways, the past is trivial.  True, we can and must learn much from it and we can also savor wonderful memories, but we actually live in only the single moment of the fleeting present.  And whatever that present happens to be, our best general strategy remains exactly the same: try to determine what course of action (or, occasionally, inaction) will move us and the world to a higher state.  And both whether we chose well and progressed or chose poorly and fell back, we can never go back and either “double up” on the good choice or have a “do over” for the bad one.  Rather, once again we can only evaluate our new “present” and seek the best path from it to the next moment.

It’s true that Torah and mitzvot can help train us for each new “decision node”, one by training us to better analyze the moment in its infinite complexity and the other to habituate us to the mode of productive and beneficial action (this is another vital reason why extremist halacha is, itself, a bad move), but ultimately, for each of us, it comes down to our own decisions and actions.  It’s never wise to drive a complex route completely in reverse, intently staring in the wrong direction.

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1 Response to For Sh’mot–No Reverse Gears

  1. Marc render says:

    Hi Harry

    I am getting near the end of a novel I am reading – “Pastwatch” by Orson Scott Card – which is based on the idea that you can go back and change history – but that you immediate destroy the present and all that existed in it in the process. The philosophical ramifications of this are liberally discussed. If you haven’t read it, you might find it interesting. Personally, I agree with you – don’t try moving ahead by driving in reverse!!


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