Visualizing 2020: the grand scheme of things

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

At the start of every secular New Year, I think about Janus, the old Roman god who gives our January its name. Janus could look in two directions simultaneously, and see both backward to the year just past, and forward to the year to come. I’ve often wished we could do the same, which might help me solve what I’ve always found a Jewish mystery…
It’s this axiom attributed to our renowned scholar Akiba: “All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” I follow that statement with two questions: Who foresees? Who grants permission? And then I add my third question: Permission for what? An array of possibility follows!
First: it would seem logical that G-d would be the foreseer. (Remember Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof,” bemoaning the “heavenly plan” that rendered him poor rather than rich?) But then, would G-d also be the granter of permission for changing His own plan? Or maybe that power of change is granted to each of us! As our lives unfold and we learn today more than we knew yesterday, we may echo Robert Frost, whose poetry points us toward at least considering “the path not taken.”
Yet maybe it’s us ourselves who also hold the power to foresee! The results of some self-selected courses of action are clear before the actions start. For someone (and there have been far too many such “someones” lately) who sets out to attack people at prayer in their houses of worship or shopping in a supermarket, or who shoots a fellow driver in a fit of road rage — the outcomes of those actions should be clearly visible well in advance. The opportunity for advance change seems to be wide-open, doesn’t it?
Another poet — not so well known — once wrote something that makes a distinction between what he called “ordinary vision” and “clear sight.” Virtually everyone has the first; the second is the ability to look ahead, which is equivalent to visualizing the future. And those who see it can help shape it in their own directions. Is that foresight a G-d-given gift to just a chosen few? Or do all of us possess the power to make such changes in advance? Or maybe it’s possible that G-d has given us the power to change our own behavior so that it culminates in what He originally wanted?
These questions sound very philosophical, but they are actually grounded in everyday reality. And that last, biggest question may be the hardest to answer: If it’s G-d who foresees, but also grants us the power to look ahead and change our own courses of action, can the truth really be that whatever we finally change to is what was foreseen in the first place? This is a conundrum that I’ve been trying to resolve ever since, so many years ago, a good friend who was well schooled in Talmud and the art of “pilpul,” our distinctively Jewish method of discussion and debate, presented me with that little bit of Akiba written on a little bit of paper that I taped to a corner of my desk and have shaken my head over ever since. Do you think any of us really has much choice about anything?
But we are not a defeatist people. We have come through so much, for so long, always attributing our successes to the power G-d has given us to exert power of our own. We celebrate that power every Purim when we read the story of how Esther changed her own behavior in order to change the future of her people. Our people! And we sang about it so recently at Hanukkah: “Rock of Ages,” the story of the power of people — our people! — who changed ordinary behavior into super-ordinary achievement.
“All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” Every year, I conclude that G-d sees further ahead than we do, and powers our changes to His own ends. What do you think?

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