BACK FROM THE FUTURE
Rabbi David Walk
This is an amazing Torah reading. The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105) tells us that this parsha was presented to the Jews in public convocation because it contains all the major components of our Torah. In other words, if a concept is important to our Torah way of life it must appear in this reading, and, conversely, if something is in this section it must be essential. And, indeed, we have a repetition of the Ten Commandments, the basis for our mode of sexual morality, and, of course, the injunction to 'love your fellow like you love yourself.' It seems that if you could only study one portion of the Torah, this is your candidate. So, I have a problem. Don't I always? One of the precepts highlighted in this material is to avoid fortune tellers. As a matter of fact this idea is stated twice: You shall not act on the basis of omens or lucky hours (Leviticus 19:26) and do not turn to mediums and spiritualists (verse 31). Why is it so bad to have my fortune told?
First of all some technical material. There are four specific practices which have been forbidden. Although there are many interpretations for these four phenomena, I'll again just give you Rashi, who in turn bases his comments on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65 a & b). The omens (tinachasu) in verse 26 refer to observing animal behavior, like if a deer or black cat crosses your path, one might change their actions. The lucky hour (t'oninu) comes from the word for clouds and means that people say certain days or times of day are good or bad to start projects. In verse 31, the mediums are people who claim to present voices from the dead, usually through ventriloquism. Finally, the term I translated as spiritualists (yidonim) used an ancient practice of speaking with bones in their mouth, as if the magic bone were transmitting the information. My gut reaction to all these practices is to say that it's stupid, but I know that there are intelligent people who are affected by variations of these practices, and among our Sages there are debates whether or not these practices have foundation in fact. My problem is why is the Torah so vehemently against them?
Maimonides gives the most famous and simplest approach. These activities are banned because they represent the behavior of pagan society. We must do everything in our power to differentiate ourselves from the idolaters, and therefore we must eschew these acts. This works, but isn't all that satisfying because idolatry is not a major element in our world. So, I need a better answer for 2011. There is actually a comment made by Rabbi Baruch Halevy Epstein (1860-1941) in his great work the Torah Temima, in which he seems very lenient on the topic. He says that it appears that there is room to allow the average person to seek magical advice in matters of theft and health, because everyone knows that this is meaningless (Hebrew: hevel). However, it might provide some solace to the average individual. Well, that's a problem. These ideas can't be essential verities of our faith if we can so easily ignore them when it's convenient. I believe that Rabbi Epstein was just being considerate to a common phenomenon. People in distress turn to avenues we normally would avoid, and he was expressing sympathy for their plight. Especially in medical areas we often look for miracles and magic when conventional medicine provides no answers. I think that we can all sympathize with that position. As a matter of fact, the Austro-Hungarian Empire listed many Chassidic leaders as medical personnel in their shtetlach.
I believe that Rabbi Epstein's sympathetic interpretation was avoidance of the real issues involved. Even that great rationalist Maimonides allowed people to use amulets and do incantations for disease. But the core idea is that we Jews aren't permitted to use magical means to decide how to act. Our behavior should be determined by Torah and mitzvoth. There are a few (very few) instances when a prophet or God will tell someone what to do, but those rare circumstances are exceptions to the rule. As a human I'm supposed to look at situations and use my mind and conscience to choose the actions I think that God and the Torah would want me to opt for. The goal, perhaps the purpose, of life is make these choices based upon ethics and morality, not based upon knowing the outcome. That's why very few of our prophets make predictions about the future. Usually they relate that we've acted badly or immorally. They tell us to choose better in the future, not tell us what the future holds.
It's fascinating that whenever science fiction or fantasy has stories about people who know the future, it turns out badly. Usually the stories are about heroes who undo the predicted outcome. These writers seem to know this Torah truth. There was an interesting film from 2003 called Paycheck. In the movie Ben Affleck is an engineer who builds a machine which predicts the future. He spends a lot time trying to destroy this super computer. At one point he tells his girl friend that if you know the future, you have no future. I think that statement agrees with the Torah point of view.
The trick or the challenge of life is to make the right choices. If you already know the outcome of the choice, then there was no choice. These mitzvoth aren't telling us to refrain from getting our palms read, horoscopes interpreted or fortune cookies deciphered. They are describing important principles of life. We make the choices that we choose because they are the moral and ethical thing to do, not because we know that it will succeed. Winning is less important than being good.
If getting your fortune told is a game at a fair, go ahead, enjoy. If it's a serious attempt to determine your life's direction, avoid it at all costs. Life is in the uncertainty.
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