“Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom, let us now relate the intense holiness of the day” None of us took these words as seriously last year. Did we? “Mi yich’yeh umi yamus, who will live and who will die?” And this year, we will think of the almost 200,000 people who died this year in the United States due to the coronavirus and we will think ahead to the great unknown; what will this year have in store.
“Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time?” We will think not only of the elderly – who died disproportionately, but the many young, who thought they would live forever – and perished.
“Mi badever, who by plague?” Honestly, every year we say these words, and I think to myself, who by plague?! What is this – the dark ages? Who will die by plague?! But yes, in 2020, we ask, we shudder at the thought – who, which one of the people we know will die by plague.
“Who will live in harmony and who will be harried? Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer?” The teachers, the front-line workers, the parents, those living in isolation… the list just goes on and on, so much suffering this year. It’s overwhelming! From the obvious and objective struggles to the countless people struggling in their own way, silently, forging forward, despite the immense difficulty in doing so.
“Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched? Who will be degraded and who will be exalted?” Our economy is still holding on, but for how long? And with the collapse of an economy, with social unrest at every street corner, an upcoming contentious election, it feels like we’re living in a tinder box.
Though we omitted many of the traditional prayers for this year, I could not bring myself to removing Unesaneh Tokef. It summarizes more than anything else the spirit of our mindset this Rosh Hashana; uncertainty about what this year will bring.
Isn’t that the most appropriate term to summarize our state of mind? Uncertainty. We just don’t know.
We don’t know anything. When will a vaccine come out? Who will be the next president of the United States? Will the country be in lock-down in a few months from now? Will the stock-market grow or crash? Will I be healthy this year? Will I lose more friends and acquaintances to this plague? This was the year, and this is the age of uncertainty.
The word, certainty, comes from the Latin, cernere, which means ‘to distinguish, to mark out, to separate one thing from the rest, to discern.’ Uncertainty is the opposite – it’s the experience of being unable to distinguish, when we can no longer separate one thing from the rest. There is so much conflicting and ambiguous information that it is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Are we being irrational or are we being prudent? We just don’t know.
Uncertainty is a debilitating feeling that can wreak havoc, both spiritual, emotional, and physical. Why did the Jewish People turn to idol-worship a mere 40 days after receiving the Torah? Because Moshe was gone, and they were anxious. Why did the Jewish People choose to believe the negative report of the spies? Because they were terrified of the unknown. Why did millions of Jews choose to stay in Europe despite the tell-tale signs of the looming inferno? For many of them it was because they were anxious and afraid to move to a new home. This year, we don’t need to look at the Torah or history to know this; we know it in our kishkas, we have experienced the terrible impact of uncertainty on our lives.
Uncertainty is taxing on our brain. Our brain is hard-wired to be aversive to ambiguity. We will do anything we can to avoid ambiguous – or uncertain situations. And that’s because ambiguity overworks our brain. It’s too much. That’s why when we’re feeling uncertain, we make snap decisions that we later regret, we yell at people, we’re rash, we cry more, we self-medicate unhealthily. Anything to avoid that unsettling feeling of uncertainty.
Uncertainty is at the root of everything that is wrong with us this year.
Or so it seems.
Franz Kafka, the 20th century Jewish philosopher and novelist, wrote a story six months before he died. It’s called, The Burrow, or in German, Der Bau. The burrow is a mole-like creature who spends his life creating a rather complex shelter. It’s built with ingenuity and with the sole aim of protecting him from all possible dangers. It’s a perfect and impenetrable home. Except for one thing – there is a hole that serves as an entranceway which is not sealed off.
The hole threatens his life, exposing him to danger, and at the same time, paradoxically, the hole reminds this little animal that he is not completely safe, and therefore keeps him vigilant and ready. In the words of Professor John Hamilton, “If the burrow were perfectly secure, he would waste away in idleness and complacency, and therefore put himself at an even greater risk. It is the possibility of being killed and the uncertainty of the threat that keeps him alert. His mortality, so to speak, saves his life.”
In Kafka’s telling of the story, the creature points to that hole and states, “There,” because of that hole “I am mortal.”
Because you see, uncertainty is a curse, but uncertainty is also a blessing.
For all the havoc it breeds, uncertainty also breeds humility. Uncertainty breeds urgency to do and to accomplish. Uncertainty breeds curiosity and wonder. And lastly, uncertainty is the passageway through which we find faith in G-d.
For the past five years, one of the things that kept me busy during the summer months was creating a shul calendar full to the brim with exciting events for the entire year. That calendar is something I bring with me to every rabbinic conference. I am proud of it. We have a plan for our entire year. I could tell you what classes will take place, what programs we will run, who our honorees will be – it’s great. I smugly inform my colleagues how at Ner Tamid, how at our shul, we don’t have to stress out in middle of the year because we know exactly what we’re doing months in advance.
Obviously, I didn’t work on a calendar this summer, because who in their right mind, plans for more than two weeks at a time nowadays?
It was sad but also humbling. Because it’s so easy for me, and I imagine for all of us, to live in the mirage of having everything under control, when in truth, we don’t control anything.
I have found myself saying and hearing the words, I don’t know, over and over and over again. In talking to top doctors, infectious disease experts, all I heard from them was, I don’t know. There’s something scary but also refreshingly humbling about saying and hearing those words. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, possibly the most important Jewish scholar in the past thousand years, wrote a commentary, or should I say the commentary for both the Chumash and the Talmud. In a few precious passages he writes the following: “I don’t know why this was said or done.” That’s not embarrassing; that’s a sign of his greatness as a thinker. Socrates once said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”
You see, uncertainty does not have to be depressing; it could be refreshing and energizing. Living in a state of uncertainty means waking up every morning, taking a deep breath through a throat that’s not itchy, allowing your lungs to be filled with oxygen, and to exhale. To say, “Modeh ani! Thank you, Hashem!” To experience life and all its beauty as if for the first time.
Uncertainty means listening intently when someone speaks, maybe even when they share a view that you know to be wrong – especially when they share a view you know to be wrong, because who knows, maybe they’re right. Maybe you’ve been wrong your whole life. “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” Get used to saying those words. They’re words of knowledge, of humility and of greatness. That’s an uncertainty the world can use a lot more of these days.
And in that humble space of not knowing, not only the right answer, but also how long our biological clock will tick, a sense of urgency is born. We all saw it with our own eyes; the people who stepped up to help, to do, to serve. The people risking their lives for others. And we felt it in our soul; the questions we faced like never before, why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? Where has my life gone?
And all of sudden, families that barely talked Zoomed weekly. Family dinners were back in vogue. Old friendships dusted off and reignited. Dark secrets and overdue apologies were freed from their captivity. New careers were considered. Aliyah offices were overwhelmed. I don’t know how long I have to live, but I do know that I want to live a life of meaning. And so, this curse of uncertainty blossomed into a movement of meaning. The greatest motivator in life is our mortality, but only when we’re bold enough to face it.
And lastly, uncertainty allows us to bring G-d into our lives. We all plan our lives as if we know exactly what’s going to happen next. We plan how many children we’ll have, and where we’ll live, and how much we’ll retire with, and where we’ll vacation – and then Covid, and the ground beneath us crumbles.
But the truth is the ground did not crumble. All Covid did was expose that there was never solid ground beneath us. As complex and sophisticated as our tunnels may be, there is always a hole that is exposed. Covid just made us aware of that vulnerability. And now that I see that hole, that hole that reminds me that I’m not in control. I could realize Who is. I could submit to the fact that despite my greatest plans, I do not run this world.
In a moment we will be blowing the Shofar. Our custom is to blow the Shofar 100 times. The reason, according to the Talmud, is that a woman by the name of Temach, cried for her son 100 times. Her son had gone out to battle and he was late returning. She was scared, she was anxious, she was filled with doubt and uncertainty. Our shofar blows are meant to capture those uncertain and loving cries.
Because you see, the Shofar symbolizes our uncertainty about our future; what will be, we do not know; we’re ready now to accept that. But is also symbolizes the love of our parent, of our Father in Heaven, who is waiting by the window, hoping that we return to Him. Because the two, uncertainty and love are intertwined. When we allow ourselves to feel vulnerable, how dependent we are, when we allow ourselves to acknowledge our uncertainty, then, and only then, can we really feel love. It’s true for all relationships, especially our relationship with G-d.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, where is G-d. And he famously replied, “wherever you let Him in.” Covid has swung open my door, all of our doors, and made us aware of the cracks in our armor; let G-d fill those cracks. The cracks in our self-confidence is “how the light gets in.”
There’s a story told about a man, who wanted to climb a terrifically tall mountain. After many years of preparation, he began his climb. On the third night of climbing, the sun had set, but he kept going. He was almost there, almost at the top.
And just as he had a few feet to go, he slipped.
Falling at incredible speed, seeing nothing, just feeling the terrible sensation of being pulled by gravity; further and further and further.
His life flashed before him, but he kept on falling, until YANK!
He felt the rope tied to his waist violently tug on him.
Dangling in the air, he caught his breath. He started pushing himself this way and that way, but he was nowhere near land; he realized he was dangling off a cliff. He tried climbing the rope itself, but he had no energy left.
Not a big believer, but facing no other choice, he turned to G-d. “G-d, if you’re really there, please help me.” No reply.
He started shivering in the cold. “G-d, if you’re really there, please help me.”
This time a deep voice responded: “How can I help you?”
“Do you really think I can save you?” asked the voice.
“Of course I believe You can! You’re G-d! I put my life entirely in Your hands. But please save me!”
“Then cut the rope tied to your waist.”
“Cut the rope.”
The next day, a rescue team found the man, dead, frozen to death, clutching that rope, dangling just a few feet from the ground.
When we realize how we’re not in control, when we realize how little we know about right or wrong, when we realize how fleeting life is, it’s an opportunity to feel G-d’s love and – to heed his directions, to let Him into our lives. To listen closely to what He’s asking of us. It’s hard, no doubt, to cut the rope. It’s hard to make major life changes, it is. But it’s moments like these, moments that are once in a lifetime, when we are dangling, when we recognize how little we are, how little we know, how short our time on earth really is, that we have the opportunity to let go of that rope and let G-d in.
Ironically, Kafka never finished that story. The hole he wrote of was the hole he lived. Life is full of uncertainty. Life is full of unfinished business. But we have a choice; to be debilitated by that uncertainty or to be moved by it. To fight and flight or – to face our weaknesses and grow in our humility. To fret endlessly or to make the most of this time here on earth. To escape into more distractions or to cut the rope – and start living a more meaningful life. We don’t need the Shofar today to remind us of the uncertainties of life. 2020 was one long Shofar blast, and if we listen to its call, we can hear the voice of G-d, calling us, beckoning us, shuvu vanim, return my beloved children, please! I love you! And in our vulnerability, as we cut the rope and give in, we can feel His warm and loving embrace.