Keep the past in perspective and avoid the trap of ‘hindsight bias’

By Student Rabbi Remy Liverman

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah have all come and gone in the whirlwind of Jewish High Holy Days that filled our days in the month of Tishrei.

We have spent ample time considering our return from past transgressions and are ready with steady hands to go boldly into the new year.

More than ever, though, I feel a sense of longing for the High Holy Days and apprehension at the thought that the Book of Life has been sealed for another Jewish calendar year.

Retaining hope amid the routine

Old worries have already begun to creep back to the surface and I feel a sense of inevitability that I will make the same mistakes and take the same wrong turns.

This is a complicated time of the year for Jews living by the Gregorian calendar. Although
there is a comfort in returning to our normal routines, we still taste the honey of hope for a sweet new year.

It is up to us to decide how we will stick to the promises and resolutions we made; how we move forward without forgetting the last blast of the shofar a few short weeks ago.

Home from the holidays

When I returned to HUC from Terre Haute after the new year, I thought I would feel some relief from the hard work of leading my first High Holy Days services. But all I felt was a sense of longing.

Instead of feeling reinvigorated, I ruminated over the past. Why had I been so surprised by outcomes that seemed so predictable to me now? I shared these thoughts with Daniel, and he told me that I had fallen into the trap of “hindsight bias.”

As we look back on our earlier predictions, we tend to believe that we really did know the answer all along.

I vaguely remembered that theory from a cognitive psychology class and when I looked it up, realized Daniel was right — I had fallen right into that trap.

The basic facets of this social theory identify the following as symptoms of hindsight bias:

  • People tend to distort or even misremember their earlier predictions about an event. As we look back on our earlier predictions, we tend to believe that we really did know the answer all along.
  • People tend to view events as inevitable. When assessing a past event, we assume it was simply bound to occur.
  • People also tend to assume they could have foreseen certain events. When we find it difficult to take hold of the present while harboring uncertainty about the future, we often cling to our outcome knowledge.

Our hindsight completely impairs our foresight. Jewish tradition takes stock in the importance of memory, but does not provide for the inevitability of the future.

Remember the past, but leave room for the future

Not long ago, we read Moses’s decree in Parsha Ki Teitse‘s final verses: “Remember! Do not forget!” (Deut. 25: 17-19). The Israelites are commanded to remember the evil of their past experiences, but to simultaneously “blot out the memory” of this past evil.

This may seem to be a contradiction, but if we look closely, we might recognize the practicality and social utility in this commandment.

If we spend all our mental energy remembering past adversaries, then we allow them to win. But if we forget altogether, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the same mistakes.

The first Shabbat after Simchat Torah returned us to the story of creation in Parshat Bereishit.

May we take this time to start over with new insight and contemplation into our sacred text, and a confidence that we are capable of both change and renewal in 5780.

Student Rabbi Remy Liverman will serve United Hebrew Congregation throughout the 2019-20 academic year.


Student Rabbi Remy Liverman officiated Erev Rosh Hashanah services on Sept. 4 in the sanctuary at UHC.

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