Dvar Torah: Not Knowing the Future

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 January 2019

According to legend, in ancient times, before going to war, a Greek soldier might visit the oracle at Dodona, or a Roman the Sybil at Cuma to hear about his fate.
And there he would receive the following answer: Ibis redibis non morieris in bello

Which, depending on the phrasing, could mean one of two things.
Either, “you will go, you will return; not in war shall you perish”.
Or, “you will go, you will return not; in war shall you perish”.

Which is a very important argument for the use of commas. Indeed, the phrase ibis redibis came to be used for a document which has particularly ambiguous or confusing language.

But it is also a commentary on the limitation of prophecy. Any attempt to predict what it will bring is fraught with risk, the chance that with merely a comma, the exact opposite might happen instead.

For some personality types, there can be something very exciting about this. For others, and especially in a year like this, uncertainty can also bring anxiety.
Whichever, it is an unavoidable reality. To live with uncertainty is an inevitable aspect of our lives. The history of our people is testament to that. Ours is a story of uncertainty and loss – the change that comes with exile, expulsions, new rulers, new contexts. Our formative narratives are ones of relocation, journey, change of name, uncertainty of place.
Our texts express clearly our inability to control, to predict. Even Moses, the greatest of all leaders, can have only a limited understanding of the world. The Moses of our portion – who has encountered God directly – still cannot know whether the people will listen to him, whether he can achieve his task.
Doubt, lack of knowledge, lack of control is a reality of being human.

So I will not do anything so foolish as to make a prediction for the year ahead, apart from one.
The prediction that we will – in the words of Jonathan Sacks – have the courage to live with uncertainty – and that that courage will, in part be drawn from what happens here.
That we will for another year meet together every week, sing together, reflect together, comfort each other, and find joy with one other. That our relationships will be ones of love and support, of tolerance and decency.

And as a result, whatever 2019 might throw at us, wherever the comma might be placed, as it were, we will see it through together.