Different cultures tell different stories. The great novelists of the nineteenth century wrote fiction that is essentially ethical. Jane Austen and George Eliot explored the connection between character and happiness. There is a palpable continuity between their work and the book of Ruth. Dickens, more in the tradition of the prophets, wrote about society and its institutions, and the way in which they can fail to honour human dignity and justice.
By contrast, today's fascination with stories like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is conspicuously dualistic. The cosmos is a battlefield between the forces of good and evil. This is far closer to the apocalyptic literature of the Qumran sect and the Dead Sea scrolls than anything in Tenakh, the Hebrew Bible. In these ancient and modern conflict narratives the struggle is "out there" rather than "in here": in the cosmos rather than within the human soul. This is closer to myth than monotheism.
There is, however, a form of story that is very rare indeed, of which Tenakh is the supreme example. It is the story without an ending which looks forward to an open future rather than reaching closure. It defies narrative convention. Normally we expect a story to create a tension that is resolved on the final page. That is what gives art a sense of completion. We do not expect a sculpture to be incomplete, a poem to break off halfway, a novel to end in the middle. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is the exception that proves the rule.
Yet that is what the Bible repeatedly does. Consider the Chumash, the five Mosaic books. The Jewish story begins with a repeated promise to Abraham that he will inherit the land of Canaan. Yet by the time we reach the end of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have still not crossed the Jordan. The Chumash ends with the poignant scene of Moses on Mount Nebo (in present-day Jordan) seeing the land - to which he has journeyed for forty years but is destined not to enter - from afar.
Nevi'im, the second part of Tenakh, ends with Malachi foreseeing the distant future, understood by tradition to mean the messianic age:
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers . . ."
Nevi'im, which includes the great historical as well as prophetic books, thus concludes neither in the present or the past, but by looking forward to a time not yet reached. Ketuvim, the third and final section, ends with king Cyrus of Persia granting permission to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.
None of these is an ending in the conventional sense. Each leaves us with a sense of a promise not yet fulfilled, a task not yet completed, a future seen from afar but not yet reached. And the paradigm case - the model on which all others are based - is the ending of Bereishit in this week's sedra.
Remember that the story of the people of the covenant begins with G-d's call to Abraham to leave his land, birthplace and father's house and travel "to a land which I will show you". Yet no sooner does he arrive than he is forced by famine to go to Egypt. That is the fate repeated by Jacob and his children. Genesis ends not with life in Israel but with a death in Egypt:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But G-d will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "G-d will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place." So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.
Again, a hope not yet realised, a journey not yet ended, a destination just beyond the horizon.
Is there some connection between this narrative form and the theme with which the Joseph story ends, namely forgiveness, about which I wrote in last week's study?
It is to Hannah Arendt in her The Human Condition that we owe a profound insight into the connection between forgiveness and time. Human action, she argues, is potentially tragic. We can never foresee the consequences of our acts, but once done, they cannot be undone. We know that he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes "guilty" of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous the consequences of his deed, he can never undo it . . . All this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom.
What transforms the human situation from tragedy to hope, she argues, is the possibility of forgiveness:
Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover . . . Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.
Atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expressions of human freedom - the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past, and the freedom not to be trapped in a cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Only those who can forgive can be free. Only a civilization based on forgiveness can construct a future that is not an endless repetition of the past. That, surely, is why Judaism is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future.
It was this revolutionary concept of time - based on human freedom - that Judaism contributed to the world. Many ancient cultures believed in cyclical time, in which all things return to their beginning. The Greeks developed a sense of tragic time, in which the ship of dreams is destined to founder on the hard rocks of reality. Europe of the Enlightenment introduced the idea of linear time, with its close cousin, progress. Judaism believes in covenantal time, well described by Harold Fisch: "The covenant is a condition of our existence in time . . . We cooperate with its purposes never quite knowing where it will take us, for 'the readiness is all'." In a lovely phrase, he speaks of the Jewish imagination as shaped by "the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled".
Tragedy gives rise to pessimism. Cyclical time leads to acceptance. Linear time begets optimism. Covenantal time gives birth to hope. These are not just different emotions. They are radically different ways of relating to life and the universe. They are expressed in the different kinds of story people tell. Jewish time always faces an open future. The last chapter is not yet written. The messiah has not yet come. Until then, the story continues - and we, together with G-d, are its co-authors.
Thank G-d for the Courage to live with uncertainty
The Times – Credo –December 2009
As the new year approaches, with the recession still in force, I find myself giving thanks to G-d for all the things that cost nothing and are worth everything.
I thank Him for the love that has filled our home for so many years. Life is never easy. We’ve had our share of pain. But through it all we discovered the love that brings new life into the world, allowing us to share in the miracle of birth and the joy of seeing our children grow.
I thank Him for the blessing of grandchildren. I don’t know why it is I was so surprised by joy, but in their company my constant thought is that I didn’t know that life could be that good.
I thank Him for the friends who stood by us in tough times, for the mentors who believed in me more than I believed in myself, and for the teachers who encouraged me to think and question, teaching me the difference between truth and mere intellectual fashion.
I thank him for those rare souls who lift us when we are laid low by the sheer envy and malice by which some people poison their lives and the lives of others. I thank Him for the people I meet every day who light up the world with simple gestures of humanity and decency. I thank Him for the fragments of light he has scattered in so many lives, in the kindness of strangers and the unexpected touch of souls across the boundaries that once divided people and made them fearful of one another.
I thank Him for the gift of being born a Jew, despite all the persecutions visited on our people, often in the name of the same G-d my ancestors worshipped and to whom they dedicated their lives. I thank Him for the transformation of the relationship between Jews and Christians that has happened in my lifetime, and for the gift of coming to know people from so many different faiths, each of which has given something utterly unique to humanity.
I thank Him for Beethoven’s late quartets and Shakespeare’s prose and Rembrandt’s portraits. Rabbi Abraham Kook, chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, once said that G-d took some of the light of the first day of creation and gave it to Rembrandt who put it into his paintings. I thank Him for the first cup of coffee in the morning and the I-pod I've almost learned how to use (another year or two should do it), for Morgan Freeman's voice and Woody Allen’s humour, for 2B pencils and wide-lined notepads, for bookshops and a forgiving wife.
I thank Him for the atheists and agnostics who keep believers from believing the unbelievable, forcing us to prove our faith by the beauty and grace we bring into the world. I thank him for all the defeats and failures that make leadership so difficult, because the hard things are the only ones worth doing, and because all genuine achievement involves taking risks, making mistakes, and never giving up.
I thank Him for the gift of faith, which taught me to see the dazzling goodness and grace that surround us if only we open our eyes and minds. I thank Him for helping me understand that faith is not certainty but the courage to live with uncertainty; not a destination but the journey itself. I thank Him for allowing me to thank Him, for without gratitude there is no happiness, only the fleeting distraction of passing pleasures that grow ever less consequential with the passing years.
Oscar Wilde was right when he defined a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The richer Britain became, the more cynical it grew. It put its faith in a financial house of cards. It looked at house prices and thought itself rich. It created the religion of shopping, whose original sin was not having this year's model or must-have, and whose salvation lay in spending money you don’t have, to buy things you don’t need, for the sake of a happiness that doesn’t last.
Rarely was a faith more seductive or addictive. The wake-up call, which is what the recession is, came just in time. So next year, let's enjoy joy itself, which unlike its gift-wrapped, instantly obsolete substitutes, is given freely to all those who bid it welcome.