Predestination – Yom Kippur 5766 (2005)

Today is the day, the stories tell us, that the Book of Life is inscribed with our future. Based on our accomplishments and failures of the past year, and tempered by our repentance of the last ten days, our fate for the coming year is about to be sealed.

For most of us, this is a convenient story that reminds us of the need to retool our lives, to make that extra effort to improve, in some cases even to take the opportunity to apologize to others we have been avoiding for far too long.

For some, the story speaks even more powerfully, filling us with the dread that comes from knowing that our misdeeds do have consequences, consequences we are not always able to avoid. For these people, today becomes a day in which a more visceral repentance is not only possible, but unavoidable, for they open themselves up to the power of the story and its compelling message.

For me, today is also a day that is filled with contradictions. I relish the opportunity to spend the day in prayer, and the opportunity to spend hours of it in study with many of you during the afternoon. Given the privilege of leading you in worship, I find myself immersed in the words of our prayerbooks, and the power they possess. Sometimes, however, I find the words so disturbing that part of me wants not to read them – hence the contradiction.

Foremost among these difficult words are those I read earlier this morning, repeated from the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. Listen:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written,
On Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by water…

The litany goes on and on. These are difficult words for me to read, because they represent a theology I cannot accept: the notion that what happens to us is pre-ordained, that God sets the story line and we merely act out the parts.

Why do I find this unacceptable? The primary effect of preordination is the denial of free will. It is all well and good to say that the deaths (and other curses) are the consequences of our bad behavior, but clearly this bit of liturgy goes further than saying we will be punished if we do wrong. It says that what happens to us in the next year is sealed – today! – and that’s that. Perhaps if we are exemplary, the refrain suggests, we can “temper” that decree, but the thrust of this passage is clear: what comes in the following year is predestined.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who’s uncomfortable with such sentiments. The Rabbis struggled with the same problem.

For there is indeed a contradiction at the heart of matters. If we say the future is predestined, then we have no free will. And without free will, what are we? Merely robots running around, fulfilling the programs of some distant, all-knowing God.

So, let’s just say that we have free will, what could that harm? The problem is immediately apparent: if we have free will, then God doesn’t know everything; God isn’t all powerful. Which is fine and dandy if you don’t happen to believe in God, but I do, and the Rabbis certainly did. So how did they address the problem?

A few of you here study Talmud with me on Shabbat mornings. They, and others of you who have studied the Oral Law, know that the Rabbis seem to have a penchant for raising contradictions and then finessing their way out of them. Find two Rabbis who disagree, and the rest will find a way to demonstrate how both of them are correct. Maybe one was really talking about a general case, while the other was talking about a specific case; in the long run, it will be “you’re right, and you’re right too.”

So, what did they say about free will and predestination? How did they resolve it?

The good news is they dealt with the question head on. The bad news is – well, here is their answer:

“All is foretold, and free will is given.” “All is foretold, and free will is given.”

No finessing, no “Rab Nachman says this,” and “Rav Hani says that.” Just a declaration, simply and without fanfare, of two contradictory statements are both true. So I knew I had to look somewhere else for a little more help.

In 1956 at the age of 28, a wonderfully disturbed young man wrote a short story that, almost fifty years later, would be made into a blockbuster movie that addresses the issue of fate. This same individual wrote 44 novels and over 120 short stories in twenty-seven years, more than 60 of those stories in the first year of his publishing career. Since his death in 1982, his novels have been turned into movies at a rate only exceeded by Stephen King – roughly one every three years. He wrote disturbing stories of reality turned upside down and inside out, of what it would be like to be an undercover policeman assigned to investigate yourself; of it would be like if you didn’t know whether or not you had a soul; of what it would be like if the Allies lost the Second World War – told from the perspective of an author trying to imagine what it would be like if we had won.

In Philip K. Dick’s story – Minority Report – the future is known in a limited way to three individuals: they can see murders before they happen. A new government agency is set up called “PreCrime,” and people are arrested on the basis of the visions of these three “pre-cognitives.” For a while, everything seems just fine, as murders virtually cease within PreCrime’s jurisdiction. But then the chief of PreCrime is accused of a murder he knows he cannot possibly commit, and he must prove his innocence before he is caught, tried, and executed – days before the presumed murder.

In the end our hero confronts the villain who manufactured the false charge. The critical flaw in the system turns out to be foreknowledge: if you know your future, you can change it. It is only the unknown that is beyond our power to manipulate. In the words of Minority Report’s protagonist: “You know your own future, which means you can change it if you want to. You have a choice.”

But is this only the stuff of science fiction and magic? I think not – I believe there is a critical truth for each of us here today.

Years ago, a member of our Torah study group described foreknowledge in everyday terms. He said: “I know my teenage son is going to get a speeding ticket. I can’t tell you when, or where, but I know he will.” It is my belief that the one thing that might have swayed that testosterone-laden youth from his destiny in traffic court – or worse! – was his father announcing that prediction in clear, uncertain terms.

It is knowing the unadulterated truth about the direction our lives are taking that holds the greatest promise for allowing that direction to change. We simply cannot master that which we do not know or understand. So long as we allow our illusions to persist – that what we do doesn’t matter if we don’t get caught, that what we do doesn’t matter because we’re only one individual, that what we do simply doesn’t matter – then we have no power over the course of our destiny. Instead, we blunder through our lives and the lives of those around us, realizing neither the pain we cause nor the opportunities for genuine improvement that pass our way. But when we are confronted with the truth, as difficult as it may be, then we are given the opportunity to change.

Seeing ourselves for who we are is no easy task. We are each experts at rationalizing our mistakes, our shortcomings. Even those among us who seem more burdened with guilt than with self-delusion are typically not seeing the truth about ourselves: instead, the guilt-ridden wrap themselves in self-abasement, rather than taking an accurate assessment of their strengths and moving forward.

Each of us has had opportunities in the past year to be a better person than we turned out to be. I know that I have – I have found myself more than once settling for the easy out of prejudging another’s intentions, depriving them of the opportunity to demonstrate their true worth. I myself have called my reluctance to speak out “diplomacy,” and I have spoken out when silence would have been the better counsel. I have splurged when I should have been thrifty, and been miserly when I should have been generous.

Seeing ourselves clearly is a challenging task, but it is through the clarity of vision that we are given the opportunity to exercise our free will to its fullest. The options I have may well be limited by circumstances, may well be constrained by other choices I made in the past, but such is life. What we do have control over is how thick a veil of prejudice and self-delusion we view the world through. Until and unless we open ourselves to others; until and unless we look in the mirror and see both our strengths and our weaknesses, our choices will always be marred by the illusions we hide behind.

Now while it may be frightening to abandon those illusions, while our spirits may be tender from the unaccustomed exposure to the light, such exposure brings us much more than vulnerability: it brings us the opportunity to encounter life, to encounter each other, and yes to encounter God in a way that is so much more real and rewarding. It is, to paraphrase the liturgy of Shabbat mornings, a challenge without measure, whose rewards are beyond measure.

Let me close with the words of today’s liturgy, words I find so much more palatable now:

This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive.
Adonai, it is not the death of sinners You seek,
But that they should turn from their ways
And live.
Until the last day You wait for them,
Welcoming them
As soon as they turn to You.

May we be blessed in this new year with a clear vision of our own lives, and the responsibility for action that that vision bestows upon us.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2005-2007 James F. Brulé