While modern medical technology offers parents the opportunity to know the sex of their children before they are born, few choose to do so. Some would say that the element of surprise is part of parenthood. For others, knowing the sex of a child in advance may unduly influence their feelings towards the child. Sometimes, therefore, it is best not to know what the future has in store. No doubt this was part of the reason that the rabbis of the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 98:2) said that while the dying Jacob was about to reveal the future to his children, it was hidden from him at the last moment.
The Midrash is not implicitly criticizing the worthiness of Jacob or disparaging his character. Rather, the Midrash is expressing concern for Jacob’s children. If Jacob’s children were to know the future, they would be unmotivated to act and disinclined to achieve anything more. Instead of being active agents in shaping their own future, they would be passive observers of the unfolding of events.
In his book The Different Drum, Dr. M. Scott Peck tells the story of a monastery in decline visited by a Hasidic master. In a moment of desperation, the abbot approaches the rabbi and pours out his heart to him. The rabbi confesses that the Jewish community has similar problems of empty synagogues and the spiritually depleted souls that have abandoned them. Their conversation offered the abbot no solutions but gave him some solace. They embraced and wept. As the abbot departed, he asked the rabbi if he had any final thoughts. The rabbi had but one thing to say and it was shocking: one of the six remaining monks in the monastery was the messiah! The abbot reported to his brothers what the rabbi had said. During the next weeks, they all thought about it and wondered, ‘If the rabbi’s words are true, which one of us is the messiah?’ As they thought about it, they realized that each one of them had qualities that would have merited such status. One was exceptionally kind; another especially pious. They began to treat each other with greater respect. This improved their morale. But it also attracted to the monastery other monks and new disciples. They and the monastery were transformed by the gift of the rabbi’s words.
Important to note in this tale is that the rabbi did not identify the messiah. He neither revealed a name nor pointed to a brother. All he did was give them the motivation to act differently. And by acting differently they changed their lives and their future. It was the “not knowing” that inspired them. And so it is with all human beings. The truth the Torah hints at and that the Midrash underscores is that knowing the future paralyzes human beings while not knowing the future animates them.