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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vayechi: When the Truth won't set you free

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

Jacob gathers all of his sons around his deathbed. He does so, not merely in order to say goodbye, and to bless them, but in order to reveal to them "what will befall them in the end of days" (Genesis 49:1). And so, the text creates in us the expectation of an explicit revelation regarding the eschaton (the end of days).

But no such revelation occurs.

Jacob's sons gather round. He blesses them. He dies. He's buried in the land of Israel. His children continue to live out their lives in relative harmony in the land of Egypt. But we were promised a revelation of what would occur in the end of days, and we don't get it.

There are various ways in which we could respond to this anti-climax. One route is to suggest that Jacob did reveal the end of days to his children, but in codes and riddles, hidden in his blessings. This route would encourage us to pour over the words of his blessings to his children and to find within them a hidden account of the end of days.

Another response, the response of the Midrash I'd like to explore this week, suggests that the book of Genesis really does end with an anti-climax. Jacob's desire to reveal the end of days to his children was, quite simply, thwarted. He had wanted to tell us what would be, but he was restrained.

In the words of the Midrash:

To what can the matter be compared? To a slave in whom the King entrusted all that was in his hand. When the slave was about to die, he called his children in order to set them free, and to tell them where their freedom proclamation [was hidden]. The King knew about the matter [i.e., the King found out about his servant's plan to free his children behind the King's back]. He [therefore came into the room and] stood above [his slave]. When [the slave] saw the King, he abandoned his plan to reveal [to his children where their documents could be found. Instead,] the slave began to speak to his children, [saying], "If you please, you are the slaves of a king, you should honour him just as I honoured him all of my life."
So too, Jacob [gathered] his children, to reveal to them the end of days. The Holy One, blessed be He, appeared above him... When Jacob saw [God], he [abandoned his plan to reveal the end of days and] began [instead] to speak to his children, [saying], "If you please, you should honour the Holy One, blessed be He, just as my forefathers and I honoured him.

This text gives us so much to react to. We've discussed already that Jacob, in the Rabbinic imagination, became a personification of truth. In this Midrash, Jacob has a truth that he wants to reveal to his children. Jacob believes, so to speak, that this truth will set his children free. But free from whom? Free from God? Is God really to be compared to a slave-master from whom we'd love to break free, if only we could find the hidden paperwork? And, was Jacob's praise of God, and his blessings, as seemingly insincere as the dying slave in the parable of the Midrash?

As we've seen, in previous weeks, Jacob was, by nature, a man of truth and purity. Despite his nature, he has had to learn that to lead a moral life, in this imperfect world, requires that one be willing to get one's hands dirty from time to time. Moreover, he has had to learn that, sometimes, the only way to communicate a deep truth is to assert something that's superficially false.

Perhaps according to our Midrash, God had one final lesson to teach Jacob, at the end of his life, about the limitations of truth.

There's a basic intuition that truth is good and falsehood bad. A related intuition is that knowledge is good, and ignorance is bad. So, if Jacob knew some truth, or other, he would -- naturally -- want to share that knowledge. Jacob had seen a vision of the end of days. Knowledge is good. Good things should be shared. And so Jacob, the man of truth, wanted to tell his children what he knew. He wanted to tell them what would befall them in the end of days. He thought that this knowledge would set them free.

Ignorance is a vice. Indeed, a person can often be criticised for their ignorance. If they passed a judgement, or if they acted, on insufficient evidence, then we quite naturally blame them for not doing more to dispel their ignorance; for not trying harder to gather the evidence that they clearly neglected to consider. In the words of John Locke:

He that judges without informing himself to the utmost that he is capable, cannot acquit himself of judging amiss.

Years later, Rudolph Carnap formulated what he called "the requirement of total evidence." His basic idea is that it's only ever reasonable to act if the evidence suggests that the action in question is the best action available to you, in your given situation, given your aims and objectives. Moreover, the evidence that you have can only reasonably play this role if it amounts to all of the relevant evidence that you were able to gather.

If you act on the basis of some evidence, but if there's some left-over evidence that you were able to gather in time, but didn't, then your decision to act cannot have been rational.

In other words, a rational person always wants to gather as much evidence, as much knowledge, and as much truth as is possible for her to gather and as is relevant to her actions.

It's tempting to agree with Locke and with Carnap. One can easily imagine that a person, such as Jacob, who came into this world in order to express the idea of truth, would have adopted the same attitude.

Knowledge: good. Truth: good. Evidence: good.

But Carnap was wrong. It isn't always rational to gather all of the available evidence. Sometimes it's quite reasonable not to want to know something, even if that something would be relevant to your own rational deliberations. Sometimes, it's reasonable to try not to find something out.

Edna Ullmann-Margalit gives the following example:

A defense attorney in a murder case may decide to avoid asking her client the direct question of whether or not he committed the crime. She will, instead, only ask him whether he wishes to plead guilty or not guilty. The attorney in such a case may say to herself, "I don't want to know the answer to the question whether my client is guilty or innocent". She assesses that she will do a better and more professional job if she does not know whether or not she is defending an innocent person.

Here's another example, of my own creation. Imagine that there's an oracle who can see clearly into future. Imagine that she can give you, right now, a completely accurate list of all of the future decisions that you're going to make, and when you're going to make them. Would you want her to produce such a list, and would you want to look at it?

On the one hand, the information contained in this list would be directly relevant to you and your life. On the other hand, if you read it, and the list was really 100% accurate, and completely certain, then from then onward, you would never feel in control of your own decisions. Your decisions will always seem to you to have been made already. Your sense of freedom would be lost. That's quite a cost.

There's a well known riddle concerning God's foreknowledge and our freedom. If God knows the future, and if God can't be wrong, then the future can't go any differently to how God already knows that it will go. So, if God knows that you'll miss the bus tomorrow, and if God can't be wrong, then there's nothing that you can do to avoid missing that bus. Your fate is already sealed, so long as God knows the future before it's happened.

One well trodden response to this riddle appeals to the fact that God is outside of time. So it's not really true to say that God knew yesterday what you would do today, or that he knows today what you'll do tomorrow, because God isn't in time. He didn't do anything yesterday, and he doesn't do anything today. Instead, everything he does, he does altogether outside of time; beyond time.

But, what if I was somehow able to contact God, and what if God could share his knowledge with me? If today, I tap into the mind of God and find out what you're going to do tomorrow, then God's knowledge might be outside of time -- and so God's knowledge of your actions can't really be said to predate your actions -- but my knowledge is in time. I do know today what you're going to do tomorrow -- since God told me, and God can't be wrong. And my knowledge about your future actions is knowledge that I have today. My knowledge predates your actions. God's knowledge might not rob you of your freedom, because God isn't in time, but my foreknowledge, if I had any, would rob you of your freedom because I am in time.

One view, put forward in the Talmud, tells us that the Torah was revealed to Moses not all in one go, on Mount Sinai, but in installments, over many years. Perhaps the idea has to do with the freedom of the people mentioned in the Torah.

If the entire text had been revealed to Moses, in one go, then, no human action recorded in the Torah could possibly have been conducted freely. The future wasn’t open for the characters in the book of Numbers, for example, if their story was sealed and delivered to Moses before it occurred in real life. God’s knowledge might be outside of time, but the text of the Torah burst onto the timeline when it was given to Moses, and it had foreknowledge of all sorts of future human actions recorded within it, such as the future rebellion of Korah. Surely it's better to say that Moses didn't receive that particular package of the Biblical text until after the rebellion in question; surely it's better to say that the Torah was revealed in installments.

Now we can return to our Midrash.

Knowledge is, in general, a very good thing. Carnap's requirement of total evidence encodes a kernel of truth. All that we've discovered is that this kernel admits of many exceptions. Jacob thought that all knowledge would set us free. Perhaps Jacob was bound to think that, since Jacob personifies truth. But, in the final lesson of his life, God taught Jacob that the secrets that God keeps from humanity are not to be compared to a hidden writ of emancipation. The knowledge that God hides from us would not set us free. Indeed, as I argue elsewhere, God cannot make room for our very existence, let alone our freedom, unless -- to some extent -- he hides from us. The Midrash concludes with God quoting a line of Proverbs to Jacob:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "The hidden thing is the glory of God, and the glory of kings is the thing that is looked for" (Proverbs 25:2).

As the Midrash wants to read this Proverb, God is telling Jacob: "Yes, there is knowledge that we should be eager to search out. To do so is the glory of kings. And if I were your King, and you were my slave, then you'd be doing the right thing to pass that knowledge on; to reveal the hidden; and to free your children. But I am not merely a King. I am God. And the glory of God is not made manifest merely by things that we come to know. Instead, the glory of God is made manifest by the fact that to know too much about Him would destroy us." God's rebuke goes further. The Midrash continues:

Apparently you, [Jacob], do not possess this attribute. "The talebearer goes about revealing secrets; but the person of a faithful spirit covers it up" (Proverbs 11:13).

What is the attribute that Jacob doesn't have? God's distance is painful to a person of truth who has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. But God's distance is part of his glory, because his distance, is what creates room for our freedom. Coming to terms with the hiddenness of God is what Jacob's struggling with here. Jacob had never wanted to hide, even as his mother cajoled him into hiding behind a disguise. But God always has to hide if we are to be truly free. We are not supposed to know the end of days. We are, instead, supposed to bring them, through the wise and righteous use of our freedom.

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