Is destiny inscribed for us, or not – and how does tradition teach us to think of the question?
“See now, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, from the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…” (Exodus 31:1-2)
So says God to Moses, in our reading from the Torah this week, regarding the chief artisan the prophet will appoint to carry out the construction of the Tabernacle, the shrine for God’s presence at the center of the Israelite encampment in the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land.
Ancient rabbinic voices take up the question of the sense in which Betzalel is named or ordained by the Divine for this work.
Quoting from Ecclesiastes, “Whatsover has come into being, its name was called long ago” (6:10), one voice of interpretation says, “While the first Adam was still a lifeless form, the Blessed Holy One showed him all the righteous people that would descend from him; some there were that would descend from his hair, others from his head, some from his forehead, some from his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his ear, some from the whorls of his ear...” so that later, when God challenged Job, “Where were you, when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) the question really was: Can you tell me what anatomical part of the initial human being you represent? If you know that (which you don’t), then by all means argue with Me. (Exodus Rabbah 40:3)
The implication is that everyone is engaged, wittingly or not, in a project or at least a possibility of reconstituting the original, glorious reflection of the Divine in humankind as figured in Genesis – without, however, knowing exactly what part each one of us has to play.
If only we each knew that it was our specific work in this world to perfect our particular self as an eye, say, or an ear, a forearm, or an elbow. We might all apply ourselves more optimally, and with less casting about, whatever these body-parts signified spiritually and prescribed in practice. As it is, we tend to try out various positions and functions. Only sometimes capacity and calling converge with something like revelatory force – and then we sense ‘Behold, I the Almighty have called by name So-and-So to do such-and-such’ – and we feel the particular person could have had no other proper place or role from the moment the world began, so essential is the contribution of that individual to what defines humanity.
Another reading has God showing to Adam “Abraham, whose children were to go down to Egypt and be enslaved there; and Moses, who would arise to redeem them; Joseph, feeding the heads of the tribes; and Moses again, originating the line of the prophets; Samuel, anointing kings; Joshua, bringing the people into the Land; David, laying the foundations for the Temple; Solomon, building it; Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah, extracting the golden trunions of the sanctuary for idolatrous purposes; and Jehoiadah, replacing them; Amon, making graven images for worship; and Josiah, destroying them; Nebuchadnezzar, razing the Temple to the ground; and Darius, rebuilding it – hence, “See, I have called by name Betzalel.” (Exodus Rabbah 40:3)
The hazard in such a sweeping conception of precognition is a kind of fatalism. One President extends healthcare coverage to twenty million Americans, the next imperils it for twenty-four million (arguably) – and, in any case, what can one do about it, everything having being ordained from the start of the world for its proper time and purpose?
Or, as Trudeau-senior said on national television upon losing his majority government in the Canadian general election of 1972, “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” (And that was all he said that night.) It’s a consoling thought – or is it a profoundly disempowering one? And, before answering, consider that Pierre Trudeau, for all his famous irreverence, was quite earnestly philosophical and at heart deeply devout – so that, arguably, contained within his seeming resignation was the faith that made him able to ride downslopes with enviable ease and grace, and then to rebound. After a defeat in 1979, and not even a year after that, there was Trudeau on national television again, having won back a majority, the satisfied twinkle in his eyes seeming to reflect inevitability once again, as he greeted the country with, “Well, welcome to the 1980s.”
Anyhow, Trudeau’s brief fall in ‘79 wound up looking like grace in contrast with Joe Clark, his Conservative opponent, who led through nine months of misadventure (not all of his own making) as though he had been preordained from the start of the world for sputtering frustration. There, perhaps, in Pierre Trudeau’s apparent ease, was an object lesson on the immense power potentially inherent in being somewhat fatalistically philosophical.
It is especially striking, however, that our ancient rabbis did so much philosophizing about predestination in full view of the continuation of this week’s Torah-reading – in which the people of Israel build a golden calf, and worship it, and God becomes enraged.
This particular week’s portion of our scripture is the oddest possible place interpretively to situate a disquisition favoring fatalism – because the episode of the golden calf is our Bible’s paradigmatic story of accountability.
The people err, willfully, and are punished, furiously, with righteous divine rage and devastating consequence. If you say, this was meant to be – well, how can it have been? Is the whole tale of Moses’ absence up on the Mountain and the people’s transgression in the valley below not rather a story-board version of the account – rendered elsewhere in our scriptures in abstract terms – in which the Divine places before us good and ill, life and death, and it is for us to choose wisely, to choose life, and really to choose?
Perhaps, as with so many kinds of moments Ecclesiastes suggests – and if only we could discern them optimally, as though preordained to live all of them well – there is a time for fatalism, and a time to refrain from thinking fatalistically.