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Living in the Space of Uncertainty

Thursday, August 30, 2018



Living in the Space of Uncertainty
R. Nathaniel Helfgot
(Draft of Derasha Rosh Hashanah 5776)

Three events happened last week that all made me think and consider a central theme, a central feeling that is an essential element of the theology, of the very core of this period of time. One of the events was of small significance and two of much greater import.

1. In a shocking loss, Serena Williams, the great tennis star, according to some the greatest women's tennis player ever lost to an unseeded and unknown player. She was the favorite, the inevitable person to win the US Open and no one thought that anybody could beat her. It was a sure thing, no uncertainty, no doubts, it was inevitable.

2. Last week, a group of more than three hundred rabbis, a good number who are dear friends, traveled down to Washington to protest the nuclear deal that the Western powers concluded with Iran. This trip to Washington culminated a summer full of passion and fury of arguments, lobbying and advertising blitzes in the NY Times and in Jewish newspapers. What was striking the whole summer amongst the partisans on each side of this tough debate was how sure everyone was in their rhetoric. Either this was the best deal ever negotiated with a foreign power, with the toughest inspection regime and oversight ever, ensuring Israel's security and avoiding war or this was Munich 1938 all over again, with the inevitability of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and bringing war closer to a reality. Most of the ads or spokesman (not all) presented an unequivocal narrative, with certainty and no room for doubt about the inevitability of the outcome.

3. And of course this past Friday we commemorated the 14th anniversary of that black day in our country's history, Sept 11, 2011. In SAR High School where for most of the kids this is already history as they were just infants when the planes crashed into the towers, we held an assembly and the kids watched footage I had not seen in over a decade, and it all came tumbling back. And again one was struck by the incomprehensibility and the fact that no one had predicted, thought about such an act of using planes as weapons, the idea that war and attacks happen somewhere else but not on American soil, that is the stuff of history books and war films not our present reality where war takes place in far flung countries like Vietnam or Afghanistan not in lower Manhattan near Battery Park.

And yet all these events happened and all these experiences dominated the news the last few weeks highlighting how the world, both macro and micro is one which we may have an allusion of certainty and knowledge of what will happen, but in truth if we dig deep, is a world that we cannot predict everything and we must be honest in confronting that we live with uncertainty and in a moment things can turn on a dime, and all our predictions and expectations can be shattered.

Rav Kook in his personal spiritual journals, Shmeoneh Kevatizm, writes

מדריגות אחר מדריגות עולות הודאיות. אין כל מדריגת ודאי דומה לחברתה במדתה הכמותית והאיכותית. רעיון מרעיון, אמונה מאמונה, מובדלים הם זה מזה על פי מדת חיי הודאות המחיים אותם. הודאי המוחלט שוכן ברום עולם, בחביון עז העתיד לבא, עולם הבא, אהיה אשר אהיה, הודאי שמו כן תהילתו, ודאי סתמי.... כשמדריגה אחת רוצה להתפאר בודאות יותר גדולה ממדתה, או גם אם חפצה היא לשאוב ודאות יותר רחבה ומלאה מערכה, ממה שהיא עלולה לה והיא יכולה לספוג אל תוכה, אז היא אובדת את משקלה, נכשלת היא ונופלת, צוללת היא אז בחשכים, כשיכור היא נעה ונדה, נשברת

This idea may also be at the heart of a famous Gemara about the precise mitzvah to blow the Shofar. The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah records that on a biblical level one is only required to blow 9 sounds on Rosh Hashanah. R. Abahu, a fourth century eretz yisrael amora instituted that we blow 30 sounds, ,תקיעה . תרועה וכו and the Talmud speaks of the fact that we simply weren't sure what the correct sound of the teruah is, is it the short sound-tu, tu, or the long sigh sound, in our very approach to God there is indecision, uncertainty, a certain humility that we are not sure what the right thing to do, that we do not know everything, that we try our hardest but who knows what is ultimately correct and yet we present ourselves to God with all that uncertainty and doubt and humility, in our full humanity. This is beautifully articulated R. Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzyn, the grandson of the Isbitzher rebbe:

she-yihyeh [!] ha-'avodah mi-tokh hester ve-safek, she-be-emet kol ha-sefekot yesh lahem makom ba-shoresh, ki Hashem, yitbarakh, rotseh she-Yisrael ya'avdu ot....., she-ratsah she-ya'avdu oto mi-tokh ha-safek, she-im lo hayah retsono she-Yisrael ya'avdu oto mi-tokh ha-safek, hayah megaleh lahem mefurash he'eikh hu retsono...

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854) teaches in his work the Mei HaShiloah on Parshat Yitro:

I (Anokhi) am the Lord your God”. The verse does not state “Ani”, for if it stated “Ani” that would imply that the Holy One Blessed Be He revealed then the totality of His light to Israel, precluding the possibility of further delving into his words, for everything is already revealed. The letter “kaf” (of Anokhi) however, denotes that the revelation is not complete rather an estimation and comparison to the light which God will reveal in the future.

The “kaf” of “Anokhi” is the “kaf hadimayon”, the kaf of comparison. The correct translation of the verse would be “I am as the Lord…” Even the revelation at Sinai, the paradigm of all subsequent revelations, must be comprehended as a partial and incomplete picture of the divine, as “as if”.

This came to me a true shock, given my previously held belief that the revelation at Sinai was perfect and that subsequent Jewish history is an effort to recapture the clarity of that pristine and intimate moment with God. The Mei Hashiloah not only claims that God’s revelation is imperfect, but that it must be so.

The reason that Commandment of Thou shall not make for yourself a graven image [follows the commandment of anochi]…is because a graven image is cut according to specific dimensions, perfect, lacking nothing. …this is to teach us that nothing is revealed to man completely.

If one were to claim perfect clarity and understanding they would essentially be transgressing the second commandment of constructing a graven image. Certainty and perfect understanding exist only in the idolatrous world view where the gods are of distinct and finite dimensions. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef equates certainty with idolatry. Total comprehension of the Divine leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation. This is because God and His Will are infinite and we mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand. Insisting upon perfect knowledge of God and His Will is necessarily idolatrous in that the “perfect perception”, at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves. We will be guilty of creating God in our own image.

In his commentary above on parashat Yitro, R. Mordechai Yosef draws a sharp distinction between “God as He is” and “God as He is perceived”. The space between those two is occupied by uncertainty. I refer to this as the “Theological Uncertainty Principle”. Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner, (R. Mordechai Yosef’s son) states this very clearly.

The Blessed One established a shield and a barrier concealing His light in this world… in order that people should experience themselves as separate and autonomous creations…(Beit Ya’akov, parashat Bereishit 6)

Indeed one can see this idea in part, in the repeated use of the phrase ובכן which punctuates the third blessing of RH davening before the closing blessing- Hameleckh Hakadosh.

States the Tur:

טור אורח חיים הלכות ראש השנה סימן תקפב
ותקנו לומר ובכן לשון המקרא ובכן אבא אל המלך וגו' לפי שהוא עתה יום הדין
ואנו באין לפני ממ"ה הקדוש ברוך הוא

We come before God, the heavenly King, as Esther did when she went into before the earthly king, with trepidation and uncertainty of the outcome, but with the knowledge that this is the only way one can live and one can't run away from that destiny.

Oh, but what an opportunity that we have, to enter into God's palace, to speak with him , to pour out our hearts, with all our doubts and uncertainties and hopes and dreams. That is the prayer of Rosh Hashanah in all its rawness and grandeur.

As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory wrote over forty years ago in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in a symposium on emunah and bitchaon- pg. 143-144.

We come to God in humility, without arrogance, recognizing the precariousness of our own lives and the world stage and invoke His help , his mercy, His care.

And maybe if we were so sure all the time of what was coming, so knowing of how everything would work out, we could not enter into real relationship with God, or with other human beings, because we could not show our vulnerabilities and our fears and our humanity.

Poem by Yehuda Amichai:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

המקום שבו אנו צודקים
יהודה עמיחי

מן המקום שבו אנו צודקים
לא יצמחו לעולם
פרחים באביב

המקום שבו אנו צודקים
הוא רמוס וקשה
כמו חצר

אבל ספקות ואהבות עושים
את העולם לתחוח
כמו חפרפרת, כמו חריש
ולחישה תשמע במקום
שבו היה הבית
אשר נחרב

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.