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Preposterous Pollsters & Predicting the Future

Sermon Shabbat Vayeira 5781

Our attention has been focused this week on the American presidential election, as well as on races for the US Senate and House. There are many lessons from this particular election cycle, but if we have learned anything from the past few years in American politics, it is that believing in pollsters isn’t a good idea. Four years ago nearly all of them predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump; this year nearly all of them predicted a comfortable victory for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, along with a Democratic takeover of the US Senate. In fact, most of the speculation among predictors in the run-up to this election was over just how large of a landslide the election would be.

Needless to say, that’s not how it all played out. In fact, in an election in which a truly tremendous turnout took place, the highest proportional voting in an American election since 1900, 120 years ago, we learned yet again that pollsters and political pundits are less reliable than weathermen, and that their predictions of the future are about as accurate as flipping a coing.

I’m reminded of a prohibition in the Torah that I have never truly understood before now. It is in the Book of Exodus, in the Torah portion of Mishpatim, and it says, “Machasheifah lo t’chayeh”, which translates to “Do not allow a witch to live.” This has always puzzled me a bit; witchcraft and wizardry are hocus-pocus and pose no threat to authentic religious belief. In Jewish tradition they have no ability to stand up to the very real power of God. So why does the Torah mandate this extreme punishment for practitioners of the supposed dark arts?

I think it has to do with the way that witches were used to try to predict the future in the Hebrew Bible. In a story of King Saul just before his final battle with the Philistines, he consults the witches of Ein Dor—Endor in both the King James’ version translation and George Lucas’ Star Wars’ movies—and Saul uses these witches to conjure up the ghost of his mentor, the Judge Samuel, so that he might learn the outcome of the next day’s battle of Gilboa. The results aren’t good. Samuel is ticked off at being pulled up out of death by the witches, and he tells King Saul that he will lose his kingdom and his life the next day. That dire prediction comes true. It is no wonder that future Israelite kings don’t try the same trick again.

By the way, Shakespeare used the Biblical witches of Endor as inspiration for his witches in Macbeth. That doesn’t turn out very well, either.

There are a few other attempts to see the future through the use of prediction and divination in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and none of them work out for the person pursuing a view of the future.

There is, however, one example of divination that is clearly sanctioned in Jewish tradition. It is a somewhat obscure part of the work of the high priests, the Kohanim, in the days of the Tabernacle and First and Second Temples. In the breastplate that they wore was a place for two stones, called the Urim and Tumim, which were to be consulted in some ways by the leaders, generals or kings before doing some truly dramatic national action, such as going out to war. I don’t know just how they worked—no one actually does—but they may have been some kind of predictive devices for the future. Most sources, however, think that they were used to determine guilt and innocence in trials, and the meaning of Urim and Thumim—perhaps “light” and “perfections” or “illumination” and “truth”—would lead you think that they were intended for judgment, rather than prediction. In any case, they don’t seem to have had a major role to play in predicting the future in any practical sense.

Now you might wonder just what the many prophets in the Bible are doing that differs from the work of the witches. After all, they seem to be engaged in efforts to predict the future, yet their words are treated with respect and reverence and they are not executed. But Biblical prophets are not actually trying to predict the future, although the stereotype of the “Old Testament prophet” is exactly that. In fact, prophets are trying to get the Israelites to behave better, and by bringing messages from God they are simply telling them that if they don’t change their ways they will incur severe punishments. It is more parental than predictive, and they use no fancy technology to summon up spirits to tell them what will occur in the future. They just poetically tell people to shape up and worship only God, to treat the poor and the immigrant with generosity and kindness—or else they will be horribly destroyed. It is not so much predictive prophecy as it is motivational morality.

The apparent message in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is that trying to discern the future by means of fancy technology isn’t sanctioned by God and will result in disaster. I thought a lot about this as the results came in from the election voting the last couple of days: pollsters use all kinds of magical means to supposedly determine the results of elections before they occur, with the most sophisticated technology at their disposal—just like witches. They may not call up the ghost of King Saul, but they are undoubtedly trying to summon up images of the future before the events actually occur. And their confident predictions—“well outside the margin of error” is my favorite term from this year, along with “overperforming” and “underperforming”—are so often proven to be painfully wrong that polls are just about as useful as horoscopes for divining the future. That was proven again this election season.

I must add that in contrast to the pollsters and their imaginative predictions this season, the various Secretaries of State and attorneys general of our many United States have been incredibly impressive in their sincerity and honesty about the careful process of vote counting that is being conducted all around the nation. That is not prediction or spin; it is just straightforward, honest decency about what is happening now.

This week’s portion of Vayeira reflects that message in a unique way. At the end of the most famous section, the Akeidah, Abraham names the mountain on which the dramatic binding of Isaac has taken place, “Adonai Yireh,” meaning “God will see” because “on God’s mountain there is vision.” Which can be understood as meaning that God can see the future—but we humans, generally, cannot.

Perhaps the message is simply that trying to peer beyond the curtain into the mists of the future is best left to God, and maybe to weather reporters and economists. Our task is not to seek to see what is around the corner, but to be here, now, and to act with decency, honesty and compassion each and every day. And that is true for both voters and our elected representatives. For all of us. It’s what God wants. And what we should all want, too.

May this inspire us to act well, today, and tomorrow. And to trust not in pollsters, or even pretend prophets, but in God.


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