Yesterday I found myself thinking about inevitability and possibility.
I found myself thinking about inevitability because of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. Towards the beginning of the portion we read about how Jacob loved Joseph more than his other 11! sons and 1 daughter. In Genesis 37:4 we see how Jacob’s disproportionate affection triggers the other sons:
And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
Reading the verse, I feel a sense of inevitability. The brothers see the favoritism, are filled with hatred, and can no longer speak peaceably to him.
While such a response is understandable, it is anything but inevitable. Both the hatred and the ensuing breakdown in communication are only one possible response to the situation.
How do we know this? First, there’s some ambiguity in the verse. While we know based on subsequent details that the hatred was directed toward Joseph, it could’ve just as easily been directed toward Jacob. After all, the verse says “they hated him” without specifying who they hated.
But hatred of any kind is also only one possible response. In a short discussion with some Middle School students yesterday we brainstormed a number of other possible responses. For example, they suggested that Jacob’s favoritism might lead the other brothers to reflect on why Joseph was favored, searching their hearts for deeper understanding. They also suggested that they could express their hurt and disappointment to their father rather than channeling the energy in the direction of hatred. And, instead of closing the lines of communication with their brother, they could’ve shared their feelings with Joseph as well.
Any of the above possibilities, all reasonable and easy to envision, could’ve radically shifted the fate of the entire family and maybe even the entire fate of the Jewish people. Instead the brothers’ hatred feels inevitable as does the breakdown in communication, the rupture of the relationship, and the eventual violence that leads the brothers to leave Joseph for dead.
As I look around the world today I see the triumph of inevitability. I see a profound shutting down of possibility. I see a kind of grim determinism. I see people surrendering to ideas like “it is what it is.” A lot of people feel like events have been set in motion with outcomes and consequences that feel dreadfully inevitable.
But the existential truth is that we all live in a context of ultimate possibility. Every moment we are faced with choices. Every moment we are invited to exercise the inviolable autonomy that defines our humanity. Every moment of our lives we have the ability to plant, water, nurture, and grow from a place of possibility. We might find ourselves in the midst of tremendous suffering, difficulty, or hardship, but even there, possibility endures.
Inevitability is easy. Inevitability is fed by our fear of what’s possible or by our intellectual and emotional laziness which always favors our default, automatic, and habitual responses. But given the challenges we face as individuals, in our communities, and even as a species, it’s time to set aside the inevitable in favor of the possible.