The Counterfactual

December 21, 2013
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat Sh’mot

Down the rabbit hole I fell this past Monday, faster and further than I had ever imagined possible. I had been invited to present a paper at the AJS conference in Boston, the annual gathering of the Association of Jewish Studies, comprised of Jewish studies academics from around the world. I wasn’t due to speak until the afternoon, which gave me the day to sit in on other presenters – top professors and up and coming scholars, each one smarter than the next. No question, the currency of academic conferences is erudition, with more fifty-cent words than this big-ten graduate ever imagined possible. Deconstructionism, structuralism, post-modernism, signifiers and signified, Derrida, Habermas, Ricoeur, Saussure – all sorts of tortured words and name dropping in order to package ideas with an air of depth, profundity and originality. More than once as I listened to the presenters, I recalled the line from Gilbert and Sullivan, “If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!” There were sessions on “Jewish and Post-Colonial Thought,” on “Pre-Modern Jewish Texts Post-Kant,” on “Urban Transformations and Associational Life in Istanbul, Izmir and Salonica.” Never before had I heard so many Jews talk about so many Jewish things without a single Goldstein joke (though there was a paper on Jacobson’s The Finkler Question).

Rock bottom was probably Session 4.1, “Counterfactualism and Jewish History.” Four papers by four different professors of fairly significant stature all speaking on the subject of a series of “what ifs” in Jewish history. “What if a bi-national state had arisen in Palestine?” “What if Arabs had been willing to compromise before 1948?” “What if Franz Kafka had immigrated to Palestine?” The first thought I had in my mind as I sat down in the session (after registering regret at not taking an aisle seat) was that these people have way too much time on their hands. I mean, it is one thing for historians to discuss the particulars of what happened in the past, another thing for them to debate the question of what these past events do or don’t mean. But to convene a conversation so they could speculate on a past that never actually happened? Really? For this your parents took out loans to send you to college and graduate school?

But with nowhere to go and a speaker still yet to speak, I decided to make lemons into lemonade, and my thoughts and laptop turned to a far more practical and timely question than the meta-historical and non-directional discourse in which I was stuck. The question that is always on my mind: “Is there any way I can use this towards a good sermon?” And while I have no doubt that you will share the answer to this question with me in a forthright manner at Kiddush, in the intimacy of this late December shabbat, I ask for your patience and indulgence as I try to state my case.

Knowingly or not, each of us has crafted and carries around a self-narrative. It is altogether natural and understandable to do so. We were each born into a set of circumstances, and either by nature or nurture, happenstance or steadily pursued design, the pathway of our life and shape of our character emerged. And we tell that story to ourselves and to each other in order to explain who we are today. To use an easy example: me. I am the grandson of a congregational rabbi, I grew up in traditional Jewish household, one of four children of two professionals. I fell under the mentorship of a charismatic Hillel director, met a beautiful Jewish girl during a post-college year in Israel and poof! Here I am today: father of four, rabbi of a large synagogue composed of roughly the same demographic as my home community, in a similar urban setting – the one difference being the superior west coast weather of my youth. There is coherence, there is causality and there is an air of inevitability to the story. What is true for our personal histories is also true for the narratives on the world stage. We know how the story ends, the Great Depression, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Second Intifada. There is, to adopt the title of Michael Andre Bernstein’s book on the subject, a “foregone conclusion.” With the finale at hand, it is just a matter of engaging in the process of “backshadowing,” in other words, reconstructing the turn of events in order to arrive at the predetermined goal. Or if you want to use a big word to say the same thing, a teleological telling of history, history told with the end in mind.

While there is nothing terribly wrong with writing history this way – it is actually the way most histories are told – a bit of caution is also in order. Because whether it is the events of our lives or those on the world stage, there is a pitfall in recitations of the past that are too tight, too coherent, and too inevitable. Why? Because if you understand your present as somehow predetermined, then you are also rendering human creativity and freedom irrelevant. (Bernstein, p. 28) If your past is understood as the necessary and only prologue to your present, if you believe all outcomes to be pre-ordained, then you risk abdicating responsibility for the millions of decisions that you actually made in order to arrive at the present. Nothing in this world just happens, nobody stands at their position in life without having encountered the prospect and possibility of very different outcomes. We make choices at every turn that need to be acknowledged, understood and owned. It is much tidier to believe that everything worked out as it was meant to be, that it could not have been otherwise, but that is hardly a mindset that will lead to a responsible and accountable life. Take, for example, the Giants season. I guarantee that at the end of the year, when the NFL shows the Giants’ “season in review,” the story will be told as if their collapse was inevitable. But you and I all know that it was far from a foregone conclusion that a quarterback with two Super Bowl rings would throw a career record of interceptions, that unforeseen injuries to both running backs would cripple the Giants’ ability to run the ball and control the clock, and that a team of veteran players would inexplicably get old overnight. The season didn’t have to turn out this way, but it did for a variety of reasons, some in the Giants’ control and some not. But it was by no means inevitable. History can be told by way of “backshadowing,” but for those interested in an accountable life, in shaping the present and future, far more productive is the act of what Bernstein calls “side shadowing,” seeing the world as it could have been, the counterfactual, the roads not taken. Only at the moment that we stand squarely and reflect on what might have been, what could have happened, is there a possibility for what is called human agency, the foundational and fundamental embrace of our ability to make choices, to own our decisions and thus be full participants, not just spectators, in the unfolding narratives of our lives.

This is exactly what happens to Moses in this week’s parashah. 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 – given the blessings of his life, Moses could have gone on to live a carefree life of entitlement. In fact, Moses had every reason, as Joseph did, to see his elevated station in Egyptian society as some sort of expression of manifest destiny. 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) If this were a movie, it would be precisely here that the director would replay all the points of Moses’ life that led to this moment. Only here does it register for Moses that at each of these points, things could have turned out very differently. And then, flashing back to the present, 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 steps up. He takes ownership and responsibility for who he is. He may have always known he was a Hebrew, but only here does it click in his mind that the combination of his tribal identity and his Egyptian upbringing positions him for a unique leadership role. It doesn’t happen overnight; he still runs away and then argues with God at the Burning Bush. But 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.

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. What hit me most about going to the AJS conference was that for me, the entire experience was a voyeuristic journey into a world that could have been. There was a time, as some of you may know, that I was a doctoral student at University of Chicago looking forward to a career in academia. On Monday, I saw former classmates, my would-have-been colleagues; I stepped into a world that was once mine and it was, I can’t lie, an exquisite feeling. During my presentation, everyone referred to me as Dr. Cosgrove, a title that I have not heard for years. There was a siren call, an allure, no question, to the road not travelled. But then something happened. I was sitting in a session, trying to listen intently to two scholars parse out a hair-splitting philosophical difference between Gersonides and Maimonides on providential design, and all of a sudden I heard myself say a little too loud under my breath, “I’m good.” “I’m good worrying about the Schwartz bar mitzvah dates. I am good worrying about what kind of cookies we serve at Kiddush, what constitutes a nut-free environment. I’m good wondering whether we made the Kol Nidre numbers and whether the kids I bar mitzvahed do or don’t get into college. I am good serving the pastoral needs of my community, going to staff meetings with great colleagues, preaching every week, and seeing my community grow. I am also – I think – good at it. And most importantly, I am grateful. In fact, exactly at that moment, I realized I felt much better than good, I felt great. Like that Rupert Holmes song, having looked around, I came to realize that what I really wanted was actually exactly what I had all along. I stood toe-to-toe with my counterfactual and I got on that train to New York “back to auld claes and porridge,” and you know what, I have been flying ever since.

If the book of Exodus is about anything, it is about liberation from slavery. But you and I know that servitude comes in many forms, sometimes physical, but often spiritual. And sometimes, the source of our oppression comes from the most unexpected place – ourselves. 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. Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be that which I will be. Always in the process of becoming, always owning our decisions and always players on the stage of the story of our lives.