I am going to talk today about uncertainty, of living in a world that is often unpredictable.
We live our lives with so much uncertainty. It is like a demon at the bottom of a pit, raising its ugly head in the hopes that we will fall in.
Think about all of the things in our lives about which we are unsure.
Our finances. If we experienced a major personal disaster, such as an illness or the loss of a job, how long could we hold out?
The environment. Will our planet be able to sustain us in the coming decades?
The future. Are we handing over a world to our children that will afford them the same opportunities to pursue their dreams?
And we face uncertainty about our souls. Are the paths we have chosen for ourselves the right ones? Have we made good decisions in love, in career, in community? Or, are we holding on to regrets about the paths we did not choose to follow?
As we live life, most of us push these uncertainties, these self-doubts, out of the way. They inhibit our ability to do all of those mundane things that are demanded of us day in and day out: going to work, dropping kids off at school, grocery shopping, and so on.
But the demon of uncertainty is there, mouth open, always waiting. It rears its head unpredictably, sometimes in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep, sometimes in those emotionally vulnerable moments when we question ourselves, and sometimes during the High Holidays. This is the season when we face our fears, when we face the reality of our own mortality.
It is a time when we cannot help but address the many uncertainties in our lives. Both the material, as well as the spiritual.
The question we must answer is how to live with it.
There are really two options. Uncertainty can lead us to fear, or it can lead us to hope and meaning.
There once was a time when the collective uncertainty that we face could be addressed, once a year on Yom Kippur. It was a time when the relationship between God and the Jewish people could be restored.
This morning’s Torah portion describes the ritual of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. When we read it closely, we find that there are certain details about Yom Kippur which seem to be missing. There is no mention of any sort of self-reflective process of teshuvah. For that matter, there is no role for the individual Israelite. Everything is dependent on the High Priest doing his job properly. If he does, atonement is accomplished. It is automatic.
It did not matter what an individual Israelite did to prepare for Yom Kippur. Everything was in the hands of the High Priest. As long as he performed his duties, Israelites could live with certainty.
Gradually, things changed. The Mishnah, composed nearly two thousand years ago, records the procedure as it was practiced in the days of the Second Temple.
One of the important parts of the Yom Kippur service was the ritual of the scapegoat. Here is how it worked: A male goat was selected by lot. It would then be designated by tying a crimson strip of wool cloth between its horns. The Priest placed his hands on the goat and confessed all of the sins of the nation over it, transferring them to the poor creature. Then, a designated man would lead the goat off into the wilderness. When he arrived at the fateful spot, he would push the goat off a cliff to its demise.
A second century Sage, Rabbi Ishmael,*1* reports that a scarlet wool cloth was tied to the door of the sanctuary. When the goat reached the wilderness, the red cloth would turn white in an ancient version of a status update.
Apparently, people would wait around the Temple on Yom Kippur, watching the red cloth with anticipation. If it turned white, they would rejoice, for it meant that God had forgiven their sins. But if it did not turn white, they would become distraught.*2*
This was a new development. It raised the possibility that the people’s sins might not be forgiven, even if the ceremonies are all performed correctly. Atonement was no longer automatic.
A legend remembers that, way back in the days of Shimon HaTzadik, an early Rabbinic figure, the cloth would turn white every year. After he died, it would sometimes turn white, and sometimes turn red. Still later, in the forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, it failed to turn white at all.*3* The cloth had become something of a moral barometer of the Jewish people.
Of course, with the destruction of the Temple, all of the Yom Kippur rituals ceased. A transition to a post-Temple Judaism was needed, along with a shift into a state of exile, a state of national and personal uncertainty. Not only did Jews not know what the future had in store, they did not know for sure where they stood with God.
These legends about the scapegoat and the mysterious wool cloth illustrate the Rabbis’ creative understanding of life’s ambiguities. They recognized, as we do, that our physical and spiritual existence is fraught with uncertainty. We do not know where we stand with God. There is no ribbon that changes colors for us, like a Divine mood ring.
Instead, on Yom Kippur, each one of us becomes a High Priest. Our ritual worship in synagogue replaces the ritual in the Temple. Instead of the fate of the Jewish people being determined collectively, we are dealt with as individuals. In our mahzor, the prayer Unetaneh Tokef describes how each one of us is personally judged by God, based on evidence collected in the Book of Remembrance that our deeds have written. The sentence is handed down: Who will live and who will die, who by a long life, and who will come to an untimely end, who will be at peace, and who will be troubled, who will be impoverished, and who will be enriched.
But the verdict is not shared with us. We go into the year knowing that destiny waits, but not knowing what that destiny will be.
We are told that our actions still matter, that righteousness can avert the severity of the decree against us. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Repentance, prayer, and charity can alter our fate.
Yet we still leave the experience of Yom Kippur with uncertainty. We don’t actually know.
Every year, we come to synagogue, and we pray, and if we are lucky, we are granted moments of insight. We resolve to do better, to be better. And if we are blessed with strength and courage, we come back the next year having improved, at least a little.
But the direction of our prayers is one-way. God does not tell us whether our pleas for mercy have been accepted. There is no red cloth that we tie to the door of the ark. We have to take it on faith.
I struggle with this uncertainty all the time; of not knowing whether there is anyone listening to my prayers, of not knowing whether the effort to behave righteously matters, of not knowing whether there is a God who cares whether I follow Jewish law.
It is tempting to respond to the absence of proof, to the silent echo that answers our prayers, by turning away from religion.
But this is a mistake. Religion is not here to tell us how the world works. It is not here to offer us certainty as to what will be. That is the realm of science. Too often are the two confused.
Neither is religion here to promise order in a disordered world. The great twentieth century Jewish psychologist Erich Fromm wrote that “the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.” And he goes on to say “Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.”
Judaism offers us a way to live with uncertainty. It instills in us a sense of awareness and gratitude, a sense of appreciation for the blessings that are so easy to take for granted. It teaches us that the things we enjoy in this world are gifts, not givens.
Religion is here to teach us to hope for a time in which the suffering in the world will end. And it teaches us that we are the ones who can bring that hope closer to reality.
It is not that teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah result in a more lenient decree. They are the ultimate acts of faith. In the face of not knowing what will be, we act with righteousness anyways. That is what it means to live a life of hope.
A comment I hear a lot goes as follows: “I like that Judaism focuses on action, and it doesn’t tell you that you have to believe in God.”
Well, that’s not exactly true. Nowhere in the Torah do we find a positive commandment to believe in God. We do find a lot of commandments about how we are expected to behave. The reason we are not told explicitly to believe, is that the Torah takes it for granted.
What the Torah does ask us to do, numerous times, is to walk in God’s ways. As the Prophet Micah famously declares: “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”*4*
This is the great act of faith in the modern age: to live a life walking in God’s ways, even though this often means walking against the currents of society, and despite not knowing with certainty whether it matters. Every Jewish act that we are asked to perform falls into one of these three categories: justice, goodness, and humility before God.
That is the Jewish response to uncertainty.
So how will you deal with the unknown, with the precariousness upon which our lives are balanced, with the doubts we experience?
Take a step in God’s ways.
Give more tzedakah this year than you gave last year. Volunteer to help the needy in our community. Attend a shiva minyan for a mourner. Refrain from passing along gossip when you hear it. Come to shul on Shabbat.
It is the morning of Yom Kippur. We are halfway through our fast, through our Day of Atonement. We will spend the rest of the day reciting prayers that substitute for the ancient rituals of the High Priest. At some point, later on, the decree that has been issued will be sealed. We will stand together during Neilah, the final service, tired and hungry, as the gates of Heaven prepare to close. It is the final chance to change. An unsettling moment, but a beautiful moment. Rich with uncertainty for the coming year, and pregnant with hope.
*1*Mishnah Yomah 6:8
*2*BT Yoma 67a
*3*BT Yoma 39a-b