A Rabbinical Counterfactual: Moses Chooses His Destiny

In the spirit of the holiday season, I am pleased to point out that counterfactuals have found a place in organized religion.  A few days ago, I received an email from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, informing me that he had attended the panel I had organized on Jewish alternate histories at the recent Association of Jewish Studies conference in Boston.  He said that, despite some initial skepticism, he found found the topic so inspiring that he decided to incorporate the counterfactual spirit into a recent sermon.

I post a link to full sermon here.  But I would like to single out a particular section that I found particularly insightful – namely, Rabbi Cosgrove’s commentary on how counterfactuals at the macro-historical level relate to “what ifs?” at the more micro-personal level.

As is typical of most rabbinical sermons, Rabbi Cosgrove’s deals with this week’s Torah portion, which involves the historical deeds of Moses. 

Rabbi Cosgrove writes:  “If there was ever a person who could not claim credit for the circumstances of his existence, it was Moses. Saved from Pharaoh’s decree by being hidden in a reed basket on the Nile, rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised in an environment of royalty and distinction...Moses could have gone on to live a carefree life of entitlement...But then, in the critical scene that would make Moses Moses, the text states: “And Moses grew up and went out to see his brethren and he saw their burdens.” (2:11) ...Only here does it register for Moses that...things could have turned out very differently....Moses sees the Egyptian striking his Hebrew brother and Moses defends the Hebrew. Only here, only now, when Moses engages the counterfactual of his life – that he could have been and should have been either a Hebrew slave, or more likely, dead – does he do what he has not done before: He...takes ownership and responsibility for who he is....[It] is only now, when Moses sees his brethren and acknowledges that his own circumstances could have been and should have been otherwise, that he asserts himself into the narrative of his life. Only now does he appreciate his blessings, and more importantly, embrace the role he has to play.

From this historical counterfactual, Rabbi Cosgrove explains to his congregants that “Our lives are not the stuff of sacred scripture. Depending on who you are and the mood you are in, you may have arrived today believing yourself to have a particularly good, or bad, lot in life. In our jobs, our marriages, our families, our quiet needs by sun- and candlelight, it is natural and understandable to construct self-narratives with an air of inevitability. We shrug our shoulders, mind our business, accept our challenges and blessings, and resign ourselves to lead lives of either quiet desperation or inconsequential entitlement. But the thing is, our lives could have been different, and while that may be unnerving, it also means our lives can be different and that is thrilling....”

He concludes: "If the book of Exodus is about anything, it is about liberation from slavery....A dip into the road not traveled keeps us alert to the fact that every second of our lives is a turning point. Our lives up until now were not predetermined; it could have been otherwise and there are an infinite number of reasons why it isn’t. Like Moses himself, we can leverage this awareness to acknowledge the gift of our portion, yismah Moshe b’matnat helko, and more importantly as free men and women, we can act in control of our destiny.”

I am grateful to Rabbi Cosgrove for sending me his sermon and can only hope that other clergy – of all faiths – follow his lead and highlight the value of wondering “what if?” to their congregations.

For the record, a worthy topic for future research is the question of whether counterfactual reasoning is the byproduct of a secular mindset.  When one considers the emergence of “what if?” questions in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (especially their largely secular historiography) and then contrasts it with the relative absence of such questions in ancient Jewish tradition (whose historiographical traditions remained rooted in a religious/teleological/deterministic paradigm), the evidence would seem to suggest that wondering “what if?” is somehow inimical to traditional religious belief (which tends to highlight the preordained nature of human events).

I am still wrestling with these issues as I finalize the introduction to my forthcoming edited volume, “If Only We Had Died In Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History from Abraham to Zionism. 

Stay tuned for answers....