July 4, 2002
Would I really care to know the future? Facing lung cancer, I am periodically asked, "How long do you have?" I respond, "How about you? How long do you have?"
No one of us knows the number of our days, or anything else for sure. A fortuneteller in New York read my Tarot cards.
"Don't worry about anything," she said. So I don't.
How much do I worry about the future? I worried when the radiologist said my hair might never grow back. Yet here I am with a mohawk. A lot of good worry did me. Life, you know, can change on a dime. That's what makes us human.
I don't know anyone who doesn't obsess about the future, tooth-breaking, pension-fund losses. Forget those who say they live in the here-and-now. They'll never eat a tongue sandwich, and what fun is that?
Steven Spielberg's new film, "Minority Report," is not exactly a deep take on the problems of "knowing," but since you'll probably see it anyway, here's where it brought me.
The film, based on a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick, argues that the future can indeed be known. Moreover, our security depends upon finding a Pinchas, a zealot who knows what crimes are being committed, and personally stops them. So anxious are we to hire this Pinchas, this future-knower, that we would sacrifice our freedoms for him.
It is 2054 in a dark, police-state Washington, D.C, all murder has been foretold by three mermaid-type creatures called "precogs," so named because they have pre-cognition. The crimes are prerecorded in the future, then replayed in real time, at which point they are interrupted and prevented by a "precrime" squad headed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the very Pinchas we are seeking. Pretty neat.
We watch on translucent computer screens as a husband is shown killing his wife after finding her in bed with her lover. It's hard to look away from those screens as the future dances by. When the murder is about to occur, Anderton swoops onto the real-life crime scene exactly like Pinchas in last week's Torah portion. He interrupts that very murder we were watching. Unlike the biblical Pinchas, a life has been saved.
The film lost me soon after, as plot holes appeared. Yet it was enticing. The same precogs, recording the future in order to prevent murders, could also be recording ordinary life, the births, love affairs, scientific advances.
These precogs, if we had them now, would know everything; how long I have to live, and if the clinical trial will work.
But would I want that? Isn't interrupting normal life a form of "zealotry," too -- destroying the mystery and the magic of life unknown? Pinchas could satisfy curiosity about my personal fate, but he'd also be tinkering around with hope.
Judaism teaches the hope of the future, as well as the dangers of prediction. It says that when faced with knowledge of the future, we usually lack self-control.
The first "precog," was the serpent, predicting that Eve could be enticed to eat from the tree. But what was the genius in that? God "knew" that it was a frustrating set-up: eat from this tree, but not from that. Adam and Eve were merely acting according to plan, manipulated by the serpent into being the curious, inquisitive humans they were created to be.
The matriarch Sarah, too, had "precognition." She knew Abraham's destiny -- that he would lead a people "as numerous as the stars in the sky." Her problem was using this knowledge to meddle. Sarah planted the idea that her concubine, Hagar, could produce an heir for husband concubine. She didn't trust the future to be revealed on its own.
So too, Rebekah's "knowledge" of her twins' destiny brought trouble. What would have happened had she not encouraged Jacob to pose as Esau? Would Isaac have given his blessing to the "wrong" son?
And where does that leave me? If I knew all, would I stop eating Dove bars for nutrition or doing my yoga? Knowledge could shatter hope.
I believe in hope. I've heard Rosemary Clooney sing "Hey There" which says everything about the hope of love. Clooney died of lung cancer last week at 74, despite years of depression and drug abuse.
"Though he won't throw a crumb to you. You think some day he'll come to you," she sang.
What else is there to know?