At some point evolution took a quantum leap and came up with human beings. We don’t just act; we reason. Cats hunt mice, for example; they don’t wonder if they should. Dogs overeat or fall asleep when they are full; they don’t contemplate going on a diet. It took a human being, Descartes, to say, “I think, therefore I am.”
Another way of putting it is to say that humans are self-conscious. Descartes also said, “I think; therefore I am.” Life is a process of deciding the kind of “I” we want ourselves to be.
Without this rational self-consciousness, we would be unable to plan, measure alternatives, act morally, and pursue meaning. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Hillel asked. We have an “I,” a “self,” a “me” that are more than the sum of life’s various parts. It is how people remember us after we are gone. There is not much to remember about even the longest-living cats, dogs, and horses — who just replicate being cute, loyal, smart, or swift. They have no character, no projects. There is a whole lot to say about us; character and projects are what we are all about.
Put it yet another way: We do what we do, while watching ourselves do it, with the certainty that after we have done it, we will be responsible for the “I” that we became by doing it. This profoundly human capacity to be participants-observers of our own lives is driven home in this week’s parsha, the opening chapter in the story of Joseph.
Shortly into the story, we find Joseph searching for his brothers. As he approaches them, “They said to one another, ‘Here comes that dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; we can say that a savage beast has devoured him. We shall see what becomes of his dreams!’”
The rabbis amend this usual punctuation, which implies that they said the entire quotation. As the rabbis read it, all they said was, “Here comes that dreamer. Let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; we can say that a savage beast has devoured him.’” Who then said the rest of the verse, “We shall see what becomes of his dreams!”?
In Rashi’s view, “We shall see what becomes of his dreams” is what we would call an editorial comment, as if it is the editor of Torah talking, telling us in advance that Joseph’s dreams come true in the end.
This reading of text is remarkable for its anticipation of the kind of literary criticism that came into its own less than a century ago. The rabbis, however, were not literary critics, and the Bible, for them, was not just a work of literature. While able to see the literary strands within the text, they did not subscribe to a secular account of how they got there. They would hardly call “We shall see what becomes of his dreams!” a mere literary device, like an omniscient authorial gloss or a case of dramatic foreshadowing.
They attribute this third-party remark to the ruah hakodesh, the “holy spirit,” the voice of God, who, they hold, was commenting on what was happening even while it was happening. Had the brothers been attuned to it, they would have let history take its course and saved themselves and their father a lot of grief.
We too enjoy this gift of the Holy Spirit commenting on our decisions as we make them; we too ignore it at our peril. It comes with having an “I” — a personal identity — and a personal stake, therefore, in assessing what we do before we do it. Our secular era makes us uncomfortable with the thought that it is the voice of God. So we call it conscience. But why shouldn’t conscience and the voice of God be the same thing?
That we have this inner voice of conscience is a truism; that it might be God passing editorial judgment on us is not. People who complain of God’s absence in their lives may be looking in all the wrong places. God’s presence is the Holy Spirit, the uniquely human capacity to monitor ourselves in the act of forming a self we can be proud of.
God appears directly to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — but never to Joseph. Joseph is like us, for we too get no obvious signs of God’s presence from on high. But we do get God’s voice, in the ongoing internal editorializing that persistently asks the question: “Is this the ‘I’ that I want myself to be?”