There is a phrase that one hears quite commonly: “It is what it is.” There is something that has always disturbed me about that phrase. To me, the phrase seems to be stating that things will remain as they are and that there is no possibility for change. It conveys a sense of resignation and suggests that one must accept the status quo.
The phrase contradicts everything we know about the human experience. We know that things change. People change, circumstances change. Our social surroundings, and even our natural environment, change all the time. Heraclitus was certainly correct when he said that one can’t step into the same river twice.
I would not bother to protest the statement were I not convinced that it is more than untrue—it is quite dangerous. I base this conviction on a fundamental distinction which goes back to the early Greek philosophers, and which is reflected in traditional Jewish works as well.
I refer to the distinction between actual and potential. This distinction is especially significant when we assess ourselves or judge other individuals. We can consider what we or they are today, overlooking the fact that there is potential for us and them to develop into quite different sorts of people.
I sometimes ponder this distinction when I consider contemporary military situations. For example, the State of Israel today faces a serious military threat from Iran. Today, at this very moment in time, there is little, if any, actual danger. But the potential for very great danger certainly exists. It is the potential, in this case, which might very well justify a preemptive strike against future capacities of a hostile Iran. The moral justification of a preemptive war necessitates that we reject the implications of “it is what it is,” and instead imagine what things might be like if the current potential became actual.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we encounter an example of a preemptive strike not against a vicious enemy, but against a mere child. Just several verses from the beginning of our parsha, in verse 18, we read of the “ben sorer u’moreh,” the “stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, nor the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, he will not hearken unto them.” He raids his mother’s purse or his father’s wallet, steals some money, and purchases a small quantity of meat and consumes it and a half measure of wine, perhaps becoming a bit tipsy in the process. Are we not astonished to read that this young boy is to be stoned to death, that the evil he represents is to be eliminated from our midst, and that we all must learn the lesson of his behavior and its consequences?
Of course, we are astonished, as were the rabbis of old. They responded with two teachings: first of all, this boy’s punishment is not the result of his actual behavior, but rather because of the inevitable potential that he would one day “become a bandit, and lie in wait at the crossroads and steal from wayfarers.”
They further insisted that the entire passage of the “stubborn and rebellious son” is totally hypothetical. “It never happened and never will happen.” They instruct us that the passage was written just so that we reflect theoretically upon its implications, but not that we actually administer such harsh punishment.
If the “stubborn and rebellious son” provides us an example of how we must take a person’s potential for evil into account, the story of Ishmael provides an opposite lesson, namely that we must assess a person in terms of his current behavior and not anticipate his potential.
Thus, in Genesis 21:17, where the young Ishmael is about to die of thirst in the desert, his mother Hagar is assured by the angel that God has heard his prayers and that he will survive: “…For God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.”
Our rabbis note that despite the fact that Ishmael was destined to become an arch foe of the Jewish people, he was judged as a young boy dying of thirst in the wilderness. He was judged “where he is,” in terms of the actual Ishmael, and not in terms of the potential one.
Numerous commentators, Chizkuni and Rabbi Obadiah Sforno among them, have offered explanations as to why the “stubborn and rebellious son” was judged in terms of his potential for evil, whereas Ishmael was given the benefit of being judged in terms of his actual innocence. These commentators suggest that Ishmael demonstrated, by the honor he gave to his mother Hagar and to his father Abraham, that he possessed potential for both good and bad, whereas, in the words of Sforno, “the very rebelliousness of (the wayward son) removed all hope that he would one day change his stubborn ways.”
The biblical texts discussed above are open to various interpretations. As we saw, the rabbis of the Talmud instructed us to reflect well upon the lessons of the “stubborn and rebellious son,” but they did not clearly enunciate what those lessons are. That they left for us to ponder.
When dealing with others, we must forget about the slogan “it is what it is.” It is a false and invidious slogan. I offer an alternative slogan: “It is what it could become.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.