History, the study of cause and effect in the annals of mankind, has been a serious hassle for honest historians.
In many ways, interpreting history is conjecture. It is, as Benjamin Franklin observed, more what one would like to believe happened than what actually occurred which motivates many a historian.
After all, how will man ever know what really was the cause and effect in a specific instance? Sometimes what we believe to be the cause is, rather, the effect.
Our sages have drawn our attention to this phenomenon when they deal with the narrative detailing the sale of Joseph and his emancipation from prison. On the
words, "A definite period was set to the world to spend in darkness" (Job 28:3), the Midrash states: "A definite number of years was fixed for Joseph to spend in prison, in darkness. When the appointed time came Pharaoh dreamed a dream, as it says: 'And it came to pass at the end of two years and Pharaoh dreamed a dream..'" (Genesis 41:1, Midrash Rabbah)
Rabbi Gedaliah Shor, in his monumental work, Ohr Gedalyahu, notes that this observation radically differs from the traditional and academic way of dealing with historical events. In fact, it seems to challenge this approach and turn it on its head.
Reading the narrative in the traditional way, we would no doubt conclude that because Pharaoh dreamed a dream that required an interpretation, Joseph, known to be a man with prophetic insights into "traumdeutung" (dream interpretation) was asked to come and see Pharaoh. After successfully having solved the dreams he did not only receive his freedom, but was elevated to the position of second in command of Egypt. This would mean that Pharaoh's dream caused the freedom of Joseph.
Carefully reading our Midrash suggests the reverse. It was because Joseph had to become free and the viceroy of Egypt that Pharaoh had to have a dream.
The cause was, in fact, the effect, and vice versa. Based on the earlier verse from the book of Job: "A definite period was set to the world to spend in darkness," the Midrash states that G-d had ordained how long Joseph would have to be in prison. Once that period had passed, G-d sent Pharaoh a dream so as to set Joseph free.
As mentioned above, this approach opens a completely new way of understanding history.
Judaism suggests that at certain times, G-d sends emanations to this world so as to awaken men to act. Just like Pharaoh received his dreams so that Joseph's imprisonment would come to an end, so, too, Divine emanations are sent to this world so as to make human beings take action.
One example of this is the story of Chanukah. It was not that the Jews of those days believed that a revolt against the Greeks was at all possible. In fact, logically speaking, there was no way the Jews would ever win such a war. But G-d caused a kind of psychological condition within the minds of a few Jews, the Maccabees, which resulted in a notion of revolt.
The greatness of the Maccabees was that they reacted correctly on this heavenly "directive" and realized what needed to be done, however preposterous.
Midrashic literature often compares the Greek empire to "darkness which blinded the eyes of the Jews". The traditional interpretation of this is that the Jews in the days of the Maccabees were blinded by the Greek worship of the body and followed their example.
It may have, however, a much deeper meaning.
The Greeks were the inventors of historical interpretation. Greek thinkers were among the first who tried to understand history in its more "scientific" form as reflected in the need to search for cause and effect. From the point of view of the Midrash, this approach blinded the Jews from reading history as a result of emanations and their human response. It confused the deeper meaning of history, reversed effect with cause and "darkened" the clear insight of the Jews.
One of the most mysterious dimensions of the human psyche is the phenomenon of motivation and taste. Human beings suddenly hear an inner voice or feel a mysterious pull to do something the source of which they do not understand. This is not only true when discussing human actions, but even one's taste and preferences. Indeed, history is full of examples in which man made radical changes in his propensities towards
types of art and music. At one time certain melodies are considered to be superb and "irreplaceable" while half a century later they lose favor.
There are no proper explanations for these phenomena (notwithstanding different scientific suggestions). We would argue that all of them are the result of different Divine emanations which are sent to our world. While it is difficult to explain why these Divine messages come, it may be suggested that as far as music and art are concerned, their main purpose is to give man a feeling of renewal and an insight into the infinite possibilities of G-d's creation. Other messages may be the Divine response towards man's earlier deeds or moral condition. The sudden predilections for more aggressive forms of music or art may be a warning that man has abated his earlier dignity.
When speaking of emanations like in the case of the Maccabees the main problem is to "hear" the message, to correctly interpret it and, subsequently, to know what it requires of us. This itself requires Divine assistance and moral integrity.
Throughout their history, Jews have experienced many Divine emanations. Several indications found in the later part of Tanach allude to the coming of the Messiah at specific times. (See, for example, the Book of Daniel.) Some of the dates for which commentators have found hints are long behind us and no Messiah has appeared.
This, however, should not make us wonder. Whenever Jewish sources revealed dates of the coming of the Messianic Age, it is clear that these were in no way final statements. They were Divine signals that at these times the world would be more favorable to the coming of the Anointed One. But, they were not a guarantee that he would definitely arrive. Once man failed to respond in the correct religious and moral way this special moment passed by without any result.
Only the lights of the menorah, representing the Torah, are the solution. It is up to all of us.