By Doron Krakow
Predicting the Future: The Wisdom of Vayechi | וַיְחִי
This week’s Torah portion, | פָּרָשָׁה describes the final days of Jacob, the third and last of the patriarchs. Over the course of an extraordinary lifetime, which spanned 147 years, he’d fathered 13 children, who, in turn, gave him countless grandchildren.
Petty jealousies followed Jacob throughout his life and into the next generation as well. A defining moment in the history of our people occurred when, envious of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Reunited years later, when famine in the land of Canaan sent those same brothers to Egypt in search of food, they found that Joseph had risen to great power and influence. Reunited by circumstance, rather than exact retribution, Joseph forgives his brothers—the first instance of forgiveness in recorded history—reunifying the family.
Earlier in his life, Jacob had spent a long night wrestling with an angel and in the morning was given a new name, Israel, which means “to struggle with God.” Many rabbinic authorities believe that Jacob’s struggle marks the moment that our story ceased to be about a family and became the story of a people—our people—a story we continue to write some 4,000 years later.
In his book, “Studies in Spirituality: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, reflected on the final moments of the life of Jacob/Israel:
Jacob was on his deathbed. He summoned his children. He wanted to bless them before he died. But the text begins with a strange semi-repetition:
Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in the days to come. Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob; listen to your father Israel. (Genesis 49:1-2)
Rashi, following the Talmud, says that “Jacob wished to reveal what would happen in the future, but the Divine Presence was removed from him. He tried to foresee the future but found he could not.
Scholars point to this text as a definitive indication that we are incapable of predicting the future. Even the prophets, about whose ability to see the future much is written, foresaw only possibilities—eventualities that but for the actions of individuals and leaders could come to pass. Each such instance underscores the impact of personal choice on the course of what’s to come and the potential to prevent even the direst predictions from coming true.
I devoted last Friday’s message to an attempt at anticipating what 2023 might bring. I was honored with a host of replies, many suggesting the message was replete with typographical errors, readers having made the reasonable assumption that I was referring to the year gone by. Others took issue with elements of what I’d predicted. On reflection, both groups of letters said the same thing: It doesn’t feel right to speak with confidence about what the future holds, for how can we know?
And yet, it seems to be common practice.
Most such predictions are a function of our altogether too limited perspective on the past. History—whether of our community, our country, or our people—has ebbs and flows. Brief reflections on the recent past can yield conclusions about seemingly linear trends, which, all too often, tend to inform decisions that have ramifications well into the future. As often as not, however, the implications of such decisions, made on the presumption of continuing trends, are mismatched with ensuing events that belie the presumed linear nature of the underlying trend or sequence of past events in the first place.
It behooves us to take the long view. As my teacher, Mel Reisfield, z”l, was fond of saying: “We Jews are endowed with a sense of history.” Familiarity with the longer arc of history will go a long way to helping us understand the present and make the right judgments about what needs to be done today, so that we might effectively influence the course of tomorrow.
Rabbi Sacks, again in “Studies in Spirituality,” tells the story of having attended a gathering where the great British American Jewish scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, z”l, was asked to predict the outcome of an American policy initiative. Lewis’ reply seems remarkably fitting: “I am a historian, so I only make predictions about the past. What is more, I am a retired historian, so even my past is passe.”
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