• Samuel Lebens

Shelach: Freedom and Fatalism

It's a little hard to believe, with all of the preparations for the camp in the wilderness (its formation, its architecture, and its rules and regulations) that the journey was only supposed to take a few days.

In last week's reading, the Children of Israel disembarked from Sinai. Their journey was delayed when Miriam was struck with the Biblical malady known as tzaraat. But, before long, the Children of Israel approached the border of the promised land. In this week's reading, Moses dispatches twelve men to spy out the land of Israel.


Ten of them come back with a negative report about the prospects of an immanent conquest. The people believe the report and panic. God punishes them with forty years of wandering in the desert.


We'll come back to this incident again and again because, in the eyes of many Midrashim, and justifiably so, it is seen as the beginning of the downfall of Moses; the fundamental cause of his never making it into the promised land. And so it turns out that the preparations for life as a nomadic nation, made at the beginning of the book of Numbers, would serve as the foundation, not for a short journey, but for a forty year odyssey.


This week, I focus on a Midrash about the transition from last week's reading to this week's reading. The Midrash wants to know why the episode of Miriam and Aaron's sinful speech (in last week's reading) was immediately followed by the story of the twelve spies that Moses sent into the land (in this week's reading):

This is an instance of what Scripture says: “They neither know nor understand; for their eyes are stuck shut so that they cannot see […]” (Isaiah 44:18). What did [God] see, so as to say, “Send men,” after the episode of Miriam? It is simply that it was anticipated by the Holy One, blessed be He, that they would come and utter evil speech against the land. The Holy One, blessed be He, said that they should not [be able to] say, “We did not know what the penalty for evil speech was.” For that reason the Holy One, blessed be He, put this [story] next to the one [in which Miriam was afflicted with leprosy, because she had spoken slander against her brother. [This was] so that everyone would know the punishment for evil speech. [It was a warning] so that if they came to speak slander, they would consider what happened to Miriam; but even so, they did not desire to learn. It is therefore stated “They neither know nor understand […].”

In a sense, the Midrash is short and sweet. It takes note of the fact that Miriam had only just been held to heavenly account for the misuse of speech before ten of the twelve spies commit a similar offence. Do people never learn?


But there are two points of tension in the Midrash that have to be unpacked. The first is that the question asked by our Midrash has a simple answer. The story of Miriam and Aaron appears just before the story of the spies because in actual fact it happened just before the story of the spies. There was no big decision that God had to make, in order to put these stories next to one another. The order of these stories just reflects the simple chronology of the underlying events.


The second issue is this: if the incident with Miriam was supposed to teach the spies about the punishment for wicked speech, then why was their punishment so different to Miriam's? They didn't receive tzaraat, as she did. Instead, the ten spies died of a plague. These are the tensions that a reading of this Midrash must seek to relieve.


One way to approach the first issue is as follows. Perhaps the Midrash is suggesting that God's decision to tell the story in a certain order, and the fact that two events happened in a certain order, amount to the same thing. In other words, why did these two events happen in such quick succession? They happened in such quick succession because God chose to tell it that way. But why think that?

Immanuel Kant

I suppose one way we could answer this question appeals to Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that the notion of time is inherently contradictory. On the one hand, he thought there were arguments that prove conclusively that, if there's such a thing as time, then it must have had a beginning. On the other hand, he thought that there were arguments that prove equally as conclusively that, if there's such a thing as time, then it couldn't have had a beginning. And so, the very notion of time contains a paradox, since, if it exists, it must both have a beginning and no beginning.


The only thing to conclude from all of this, Kant thought, was that time isn't ultimately real. According to Kant, objects in the actual world are not conditioned by time at all. There is no earlier or later, in the actual world, nor is there past, present, or future.


Rather, according to Kant, it is human experience that requires the order and structure that time imposes upon the world that it experiences. Accordingly, time is a feature of human experience. It isn't out there in the world.

Another way of thinking of this would be to imagine time as an illusion that helps the human mind to make sense of an inherently timeless world beyond. If you wore a pare of glasses with a template stuck on the lenses (like the man in this picture), then that template would seem to impose structure upon what you'd see through the glasses. Time, for Kant, was just like that: a template that imposes structure on our experience. Nothing more.


Perhaps, like Kant, the Midrash is suggesting that time isn't real. There is no fact as to what happens earlier and what happens later. And so, perhaps, it is somehow up to God to impose the appearance of a sequence upon the world. But even though I love to bring Midrash into conversation with philosophy, this seems like over-reach! Surely the Midrash isn't saying that God imposes order on a timeless world.


A simple way to go would be to equate God's relationship to the world with the relationship of an author to her story. I have explored this suggestion elsewhere, including at the start of this weekly series. The reason that the sin of Miriam and Aaron directly proceeded the sin of the spies is because that's the order in which God chose to tell the story. That makes sense if this world itself is nothing more than a story that God's telling.

Of course, you might balk at this reading. It makes it sound as if we have no free will at all. We're merely puppets on a string performing the script that God has written for us, in the order that he's written it.


But if that's your objection to my reading, then it suggests that we're actually on the right lines, because this objection isn't against my reading, this objection is against the Midrash itself! I'm not challenging the notion of free will. The Midrash does that all on its own!


According to this Midrash, God knew, before the sin of the spies, that the spies would sin. Perhaps he knew that, even given the opportunity to learn from Miriam's mistake, they would spurn it. As the Midrash presents things, God merely wanted to exonerate himself from the charge that they hadn't been fairly warned. We imagine he knew that they would take no heed. Everything had been foreseen.

This lands us squarely in the riddle of theological fatalism; the worry that if God knows before you act, how you're going to act, and if God can't be wrong, then it won't be possible for you to defy God's expectations. And if that's the case, then it seems as if you never have the ability to act with freedom. To make matters worse, the Midrash comes close to implying that God orchestrated Miriam's sin in order to teach a lesson. But if God orchestrated the sin, then how could Miriam be free?


Perhaps it won't satisfy my readers, but I really believe that our being characters in God's story poses no special problem for human freedom. In fact, I think it makes room for human freedom.



Take the following sentences:


(1) Hamlet was a Danish Prince.

(2) Hamlet was an Investment Banker.

(3) Hamlet was a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.


There is a sense in which (1) is true and (2) is false. Hamlet was a Danish Prince; not an Investment Banker. If, in an English Literature class, you contend that Hamlet wasn’t a Danish Prince, but that he was an Investment Banker, your teacher will say that you have made a mistake.


However, there’s another sense in which both sentences are false. In order to be a Danish Prince or an Investment Banker, you first of all need to exist. Hamlet never existed. If you look at a list of all of the Danish princes in history, Hamlet won’t be on it. But, when your teacher asks you whether or not Hamlet was a Danish Prince, you would be mistaken to say, ‘No, I don’t think he was, since he was merely a figment of Shakespeare's imagination.’ We are dealing here with two senses of truth and falsehood: truth-relative-to-the-Hamlet-fiction, call it truth-H, in which (1) is true and (2) and (3) are false; and truth simpliciter, in which (1) and (2) are false and (3) is true. With this in mind, consider the following two sentences:


(4) Hamlet only did what Shakespeare ordained for him.

(5) Hamlet had free will, and thus the choice to kill his uncle was his own.


Sentence (4) is true, but would be the wrong answer to your teacher’s question when she asks you, why did Hamlet kill his uncle? Thus, sentence (4) has truth simpliciter, but it isn’t true-H. You owe your teacher a better answer. If you didn’t think that Hamlet had free will, a lot of the suspense and the drama would be sapped out of the play. Shakespeare could have written a play about Hamlet the automaton with no will or emotion. It would have been a very different play. The Hamlet that we know and love is a Hamlet with free will.


Just as Shakespeare is the author of Hamlet, perhaps our Midrash thinks that God is the author of our world. And thus, our Midrash can make the following two claims without any contradiction:


(6) The ten spies and Miriam only ever did what God ordained for them to do

(7) The ten spies and Miriam acted entirely of their own accord


Just as you can assert sentences (4) and (5) without contradicting yourself; our Midrash can assert sentences (6) and (7) without contradicting itself. If you were accused of contraction, when asserting both (4) and (5), you would be right to accuse your accuser of ignoring the shift you performed, between asserting (4), relative to the standards of truth-H, and asserting (5) relative to the standards of truth simpliciter. Likewise, if you were to accuse our Midrash of contradiction, for asserting both (6) and (7), we would be right to accuse you of failing to recognize the shift it performs between (6), which it asserts relative to the standards of truth simpliciter, and (7), which it asserts relative to the standards of truth-relative-to-the-story-that-God-tells-of-our-world (call it truth-E). God’s being the author of our world is no more of an attack on our freedom than Shakespeare’s authorship of Hamlet is an attack on Hamlet’s freedom.

This can make people feel queasy. It sounds like I'm saying that we're not real. But that's not right. I'm only saying that you're not as real as God. And surely that's just what theists have to believe. God is the foundation of all reality; nothing is as real as him.


Hamlet has freedom in the only reality that really needs to bother Hamlet: the reality of the story in which he lives. We too have freedom in the only reality that really needs to bother us: the reality of the story in which we lead our lives. But, unlike Hamlet, and in common with the characters of many post-modern novels, we sometimes get a glimpse of the fact that we are characters in a story.


We sometimes catch a glimpse of that level of reality that lies beyond us. And that's important, because it shows us that even though all of our actions are ours, and even though all of our actions are free, it can still be the case that everything we do, and everything that happens to us, is saturated with meaning; just as everything that happens in a novel is ripe for interpretation. It means that even the things that, from our perspective, happen by chance, can also be viewed as communicating a lesson from God.


That's the way, I think, in which we have to relieve the first tension that we noted in the Midrash. According to our Midrash, God is the author of our free actions and so history is of our making, and yet it is saturated with meaning.


But what about the second tension? How can God say that the ten spies had been fairly warned when their punishment seems to be so much harsher than Miriam's?


You could say that their crime was more severe. That's a plausible suggestion. But it doesn't sit well with the Midrash. According to the Midrash, God intended to teach the spies "the punishment for evil speech" - there's no indication here that this punishment comes in degrees.


Alternatively, you could say that Miriam's general righteousness was a mitigating factor in her punishment. On this view, the spies should have thought as follows: "if the punishment was bad for her, how much worse will it be for us, since we can't appeal to a history of exemplary behaviour!" I can see the logic of that reading too, but it's unlikely to have moved the authors of the Midrash. On the contrary, the general attitude of Jewish thought is that the righteous receive harsher punishment than others because more is expected of them, and because their sins reflect so badly upon religious people in general.


Perhaps the aim of the Midrash is actually to highlight how bad Miriam's punishment was. Everything that we know of Miriam accrues to her merit. She made sure that her baby brother was safe. She led the people in song. According to the Rabbis, she was responsible for promoting Jewish continuity in the darkest days of Egyptian servitude. As soon as she dies, the camp in the wilderness complains of thirst. The Rabbis therefore teach that the water that came to the Israelites, miraculously, in the wilderness, came only in the merit of Miriam. For such a saintly person to be forever associated with a sin, to have been punished in public, to have delayed the entire camp, was at least as severe as death.


In this Midrash, God is presented as warning the spies with the punishment of Miriam. But the authors of our Midrash have a different agenda. They want us to compare the punishment of the spies and the punishment of Miriam, for a different reason, in order that we should recognise how the stain of a single sin is no less severe, in the eyes of the righteous, than death itself.


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