In 1927, Werner Heisenberg set the world of quantum physics on its ear with his Uncertainty Principle. In relation to a subatomic particle (e.g., electron), Heisenberg stated that the more precisely we measure its location, the more imprecise becomes our calculation of its momentum, and vice versa. Thus, in a physical seesaw, we cannot measure both an electron’s location and momentum simultaneously, for measuring one thwarts the measuring of the other.
In practical terms, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle relates to knowing either where an object is or where it is going in the future. We can calculate exactly where something is in the present moment, but then its momentum (i.e., knowledge of where it is going) is completely unknown. I would like to use this uncertainty principle as a springboard to the broader question of how we live our lives.
Notwithstanding the past, is our present the electron and our future the momentum? Can we be cognizant of the present and simultaneously be aware of our future, or is there an uncertainty principle here? If so, which deserves more of our attention: being present in the moment, or being prepared for the future? We would like to fully embrace both, but our human experience seems to demonstrate that the more “present” you are, the less aware you will be about where you are going, and vice versa. Both of these mindsets are important; however, should we give more weight to being present-minded or future-minded? Is there another possibility?
Judaism has tended to place more value on the past (memory, zakhor) and the present (observing and protecting, shamore) than the future. However, while acknowledging that the future remains uncertain, there are significant responsibilities upon us to plan for and consider the future. In fact, one rabbi argues that our consideration of the future outcome of our actions is the most important virtue for man to cling to (Pirke Avot, 2:13).
G-d is the ultimate model for living in all times simultaneously, as is learned from the revealed Divine Name (Yud, Hey, Vav, Hey, “to be” in past, present, and future). But this is one of the attributes of G-d that we cannot emulate. We learn from the Seven Blessings recited at a Jewish wedding that at that holy moment of union, the Garden of Eden and the messianic times are connected. It is a moment of transcendence in a cosmic connection between past, present, and future. Perhaps only at a Divinely embraced union of love such as this is such a phenomenon possible.
Aside from a unique moment of transcendence, we cannot simultaneously know our current position and our trajectory. However, we must strive to make the effort to consider the future implications of our actions today, and perhaps we can then achieve more balance in present and future thinking. An imbalance of present and future thought can create problems. Many are constantly late because they get so caught up in current activities that they neglect future commitments. Others struggle with present obligations because they are so consumed with upcoming events. We must learn to constantly alternate between present and future thinking. Ron Heifetz, Harvard professor of leadership studies, teaches that when we “dance” we must also be “on the balcony” watching ourselves. If we are only dancing, we are unaware that the dance is changing. However, if we are only observing, then we fail to dance properly in the present.
This cognitive exercise provides an important lesson about creating social change. We must attend to the needs of those suffering before us in the moment (chesed). However, if we only do this, then we risk neglecting the paradigm shifts that are necessary to understand to attack the root causes of injustices (tzedek). As moral agents, we must consider the current situation and the future outcome of our actions. We cannot merely embrace current obligations (deontology), nor can we merely act based upon future expectations (consequentialism). Rather, our moral lives transcend these temporal paradigms.
While we must always strive our best, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle reminds us that we must have the humility to embrace that we cannot fully live in the present and engage in future thinking simultaneously. The best we can do is teshuva: working to change the future by actively changing ourselves and our world in the present. The world is constantly changing but together we must tackle the greatest moral issues of our time.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.