Knowing the Past to Build the Future

Both of my kids have bad allergies, so every time I see my daughter scrunch her nose and widen her eyes, I know she’s about to sneeze – even before she does. In fact, when I ask her to get a tissue in advance, she’ll often respond, “I don’t need one!”…and about five seconds later, it turns out that I’ve predicted the future.

Seeing the future is an integral part of both this week’s portion, Vayeilech, as well as the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe. In this week’s short portion (only one chapter), Moses comes towards the close of his remarks to the Israelites, and God says some final words to him:

Adonai said to Moses: “You are soon to lie with your ancestors. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

The text then describes how the Israelites will follow other gods, and God seems to know in advance that the Israelites “will act wickedly and turn away from the path that [God] enjoined upon you,” (v. 29) and warns them of what will happen when they do.

It’s a similar message in one of the most stirring (and troubling) prayers in the High Holy Day prayerbook, Unetaneh Tokef, recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

All humanity will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

We often feel uncomfortable with an image of God who knows what will happen in the future, and who has sealed our fate in advance. We want to feel a sense of agency over our own lives, and that we have at least a modicum of free will. As a result, some of us bristle at the theology of the High Holy Days.

But perhaps this perception of God as “all-seeing and all-knowing” doesn’t have to mean God is a puppet-master, pulling strings from up on high, or holding a crystal ball to peer at our fate. Instead, perhaps, like me with my daughter and her sneezing, it’s more about God recognizing the signs of what’s likely to happen next.

After all, we know that the natural world is (as a whole) predictable – if we throw a ball in the air, it will come back down. If we boil a pot of water, it will turn into steam. It’s not that we have magical predictive powers; it’s that our brains already have a good sense of what the immediate future will bring. And as a study from 2018 suggests, our predictive brains work on the social world, as well:

When you see a ball in flight, your brain calculates not just its static visual features such as size and shape but also predicts its future trajectory. Here, we investigated whether the same might hold true in the social world: when we see someone flying into a rage, does our brain automatically predict their social trajectory?…[The] results suggest that the social brain automatically predicts others’ future mental states.

Do we get the future wrong at times? Of course. Everything from our own free will to the randomness of life means that we sometimes make mistakes in our predictions. But predictions are not set in stone, and in thinking about our future, we can change it.

The Yamim Nora’imParashat Vayeilech, and Deuteronomy as a whole all warn us about what might happen if we miss the mark. But if we know what’s likely to happen (since it’s happened in the past), and we know we want to chart a different course, that’s where we can start. While habits may be hard to break, and we will certainly miss the mark in many ways in 5783, we are not automatons with predetermined actions. Instead, our knowledge of our past can help us build a better future.

God is seen as a parent in the High Holy Day liturgy. And parents know their children – their flaws, their gifts, and even sometimes their actions before they happen. It’s not magic, and it’s not prophecy – it’s both experience and love. The best parents help their kids to thrive, to grow, and to make our world better, and for me, one of the most rewarding moments of parenting is when my children pleasantly surprise me. When they clean their rooms on their own, say something funny, or give an unprompted hug, we realize that even if we know what they’re likely to do, there’s always a chance for unexpected joy.

5783 is not yet predicted – may we know how we’ve acted in the past in order to change the year to come.

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