Can We Ask 'What If' Without It Terrifying Us?

Sometimes, disaster is only averted by arbitrariness. On Rosh Hashanah, the story of Akeida lends insight into how we can cope with this realization.

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Last summer, a large malignant tumor was successfully removed from my chest. While supremely grateful to my surgeon, I couldn’t shake the fear of how easily things could have gone wrong, and what the consequences may have been. What if I would have delayed checking out my cough and my condition would have worsened? What if the tumor had embedded in an internal organ rather than just scraping my oesophagus? What if complications ensued during the five-hour surgery? Or if my lung – which I retroactively learned had been flattened by the tumor – would not have re-inflated itself naturally?

In Robert Cowley’s book "What If?" different historians touch on historical counterfactual ideas, exploring what may have happened had certain historical events not taken place. Had Ogedei Khan not died on the eve of the Mongol siege of Vienna in 1241, hordes would have devastated Western Europe, destroying a culture that later generated the Industrial Revolution, the theories of Galileo and Newton, and the ideas of Dante, Michelangelo and Leonardo. Had Hitler directed the Wehrmacht to focus on Middle Eastern – rather than Soviet – oil fields, he may well have won the war.

Historical events often acquire an inevitability when viewed in retrospect. But as one critic noted, these events should remind us “of the slender threads on which our past hangs. One small break - at Poitiers or Long Island, at Gettysburg or Berlin - might have unravelled the entire tapestry of modern history.” These historical examples happen to have ended positively. But that shouldn’t alleviate the alarm in considering how easily an alternative, darker reality could have played out.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we read a passage about the Akeida, which touches on this terror of the counterfactual. The story – where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but a heavenly voice ultimately prevents the slaughter - is followed immediately by the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah, which leads the rabbis to suggest a connection between the two stories. One commentary suggests that Satan is so furious that Abraham successfully passed God’s test that he approaches Sarah and recounts the story in such an alarming way that she weeps uncontrollably and dies before he reaches the end (in which the sacrifice ultimately does not take place). According to tradition, it is this weeping from which the shofar sounds we hear during the Days of Awe originated. Another commentary describes Isaac himself standing before his mother relating his adventure. “My fatherbound me on the altar...He took the knife to slaughter me. Had not [ee-lu-lei] the Holy One called out, ‘Cast not your hand on the boy,’ I would have been slaughtered. Isaac did not complete his sentence when Sarah’s soul had already gone from her.”

In the first version, it’s easy to understand why Sarah dies. She thinks her son has been murdered. But in the second, he is standing before her very much alive. The story has a happy ending. Why then does she perish? In her book "Genesis: Beginnings of Desire," Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg suggests that Sarah’s death is not due to the narrator’s inability to complete the story, but rather her inability to deal with disaster averted by arbitrariness, from “the hair’s breadth that separates death from life.” The "ee-lu-lei.". the What If.

Abraham Joshua Heschel relates how he first read the Akeida story as a child and began to weep in fright. "Why are you crying?" his rabbi asked, "You know that Isaac was not killed." Still tearful, the precocious infant replied "But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?" The rabbi comforts the young Heschel, explaining that an angel cannot come late. Writing half a century later, the great Jewish thinker and civil rights campaigner concludes that even though an angel cannot be late, man, made of flesh and blood, can be.

Those who believe in a benign, guiding hand in history – whether at Poitiers, Long Island, Gettysburg, Berlin, or within their own lives – may find comfort and meaning in whatever circumstances they experience. But for those of us who find it difficult to envisage the fabric of global and individual history through this lens, who struggle to salvage meaning from a sometimes arbitrary world in which but for one Mongol death, European culture may never have occurred; those who know from personal experience that flesh and blood, and sometimes even angels can be late; those people face a terrifying dilemma, one that our matriarch Sarah was unable to overcome.

Momentarily stopping to consider the potential counterfactual history of the endless permutations of our lives can be terrifying.  But as we enter the Days of Awe, and prepare for the sounds of the shofar, I pray we be able to approach the reality of life’s "slender threads" with strength.

Calev Ben-Dor grew up and was educated in England before making aliyah in 2005. He currently works as an analyst in the Policy Planning Department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and also lectures on topics of Israeli and Jewish interest.