Living With Uncertainty

Rosh Hashanah Evening 2008-5769

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            How wonderful it is to be together for this Rosh Hashanah evening. Earlier this month I was concerned we might not be here. I refused to believe that history was going to repeat itself, but there was definitely the distinct possibility.

As Gustav approached I scrutinized every report, each path projection. I remember turning to Lynn in exasperation saying: “Why can’t they just tell us where it is going?” Of course I knew the answer. Prognosticators were providing us with every bit of information possible, but experience has taught us that after all is said and done, these storms seem to have minds of their own. And so, with dire predictions possible, I pursued the appropriate path like most of you: evacuation.

At first we went to Jacobs Camp and how wonderful it is that our URJ camp is available to all of us in this situation. It was our first refuge. Then when it seemed clear that we would not be returning home any time soon, we traveled to my in-laws who have a dairy farm in Waco, TX.

Fortunately, Gustav weakened, moved west from Greater New Orleans, resulting in much less damage than anticipated. Still, it would necessitate a few days away from home. Sitting in Waco, I began to go a little stir crazy, first waiting to learn when we would be allowed back, and then whether or not we had electricity. I was clearly not my normal, in control self. Rather, I was anxious and for me, a bit irritable.

I was bored, frustrated and wanted to be home, to see that all was well and pursue my usual activities in this busy season of the year. But that was not to be. Of course residing on a dairy farm is radically different than refuge at a hotel, in camp or someone’s home. So one afternoon in order to relieve stress, I spent a few hours accompanying my nephew as he plowed a field. I got to drive a huge tractor with a GPS system for creating straight rows. In other words, any idiot city boy could do it.

Then there was “big excitement.” The phone rang as a neighbor reported that a cow was loose from the pasture and roaming in the road. Now, you should know that on a dairy farm, this is a regular occurrence, but not for your city boy rabbi. We all jumped in the car, found the cow and I single handedly saved the day. Actually, as soon as I exited the car, it saw me and headed back to the pasture. All I had to do was open the gate.  I’d say this is “no bull,” but it was.

Passing the time was a challenge. I tried working on a sermon for this evening. Ironically, it was the same sermon I had been preparing in the summer of 2005. I had researched and taken notes on the subject, but it was just not coming together. For diversion I tried watching satellite TV with hundreds of stations, but nothing captured my attention. I read one of my professional journals…boring!

Then I picked up another book, which I had brought with me entitled: “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. Rabbi Kula has the marvelous ability to apply our Jewish teachings to daily living, elevating mundane challenges to the sacred. As I read through a chapter entitled, “Dancing With Uncertainty,” it all clicked. He was speaking to me and hopefully to all of you for this moment.

It was the uncertainty of the situation that had me so ill at ease. Most of the time, we are in control of our world, or at least we think we are. Then along comes a Katrina or Gustav. We quickly appreciate that there are forces well beyond our manipulation. We can react to what happens, but even then we cannot be sure we are making the right decision. Do I evacuate to Jacobs Camp or Texas, Birmingham or Baton Rouge? Which route will deliver me with the least traffic? On the one hand uncertainty can be a source of great distress, but as Rabbi Kula points out: “Doubt is a prerequisite for any meaningful journey. When we can acknowledge the built-in anxiety rather than maintaining the illusion of certainty, we become humble- which in turn creates a new and more authentic confidence.” (p. 89) By accepting uncertainty as a natural part of life, we can better cope with the challenges that come our way.

Uncertainty is actually built into some activities and we would have it no other way. While I root for our Saints and Hornets and want them to win, I watch or attend the games because of the uncertainty. I am not sure of victory until the game is over. The closer the game, the more fun it is. If we know who wins in advance, it is not nearly as enjoyable.

The same is true with television, film and literature. We watch television, view movies and read novels expecting the unexpected, delighting in the uncertainty. We hate it when we DVR a show, plan to see a movie or read a book and someone informs us of the ending in advance. Describing a plot as “predictable” is often a reviewer’s most devastating criticism.

But most of the time life is uncertain, unpredictable. One of life’s great challenges is learning to live with uncertainty. Consider parenting for a moment. Is there anything certain about being a parent? It starts with trying to conceive. For many this can be a great challenge. Then once that fetus is there, the worrying begins. Is it a boy or girl? Some find out, while others do not. Will the baby be healthy? Nothing is certain and this is just the beginning.

Every parent wants to make the best choices for his/her child. When should we start Gates of Prayer Nursery School? (Note the shameless plug.) This will be the first of many academic choices. Then comes: public or private? If private, Jewish, secular or Christian parochial? We agonize over these decisions, striving for the certainty that we are ensuring the quality of life for our children. After all this decision will be the difference ultimately between Harvard and Podunk U. (At least we act that way.) Sometimes we are correct and sometimes not. With perspective, we realize that most decisions are not irreversible. When one school doesn’t work out, there is always another. So, Karate may not be little Chaim’s forte. Instead he is a natural at soccer, or dance or piano. At one moment we wrestle with the uncertainty of our decisions, believing them to be so significant. Ultimately we may reach a point and say to ourselves, “what’s the big deal?’ and we go with it.

Friends, life is a journey and it is filled with uncertainty. Our Biblical ancestors understood this reality. Did Abram really know his future when he departed his homeland based upon a promise from some invisible God? Babylonia was comfortable and civilized, while Canaan was “the sticks.” Filled with uncertainty, he took the risk and became the father of the Jewish people. Similarly Moses had no idea what would happen when he spoke truth to power. He could have been killed on the spot. Instead, he was able to lead the people to the Promised Land.

They both had moments of doubt, turning to God for the assurance that they were on the right path. They wanted certainty, but neither really receives absolute answers. Rather they moved forward with the best insights available and with the faith that sometimes that will have to be enough.

In many situations, we know what we are doing and what the results will be, but sometimes that is not the case. “Uncertain times create anxiety, fear and vulnerability.” We confront life challenges and questions, some more significant than others: selecting the right restaurant for dinner or a location for vacation, how to respond to another in a sensitive moment, deciding which candidate to support, what college to attend, which job to accept, finding a life partner, when to change jobs, leave one career and venture forth to another, or eventually to retire. For some whether the choice is momentous or not, the desire to be certain can be overwhelming. Rabbi Kula teaches that we can be paralyzed by uncertainty or harness it as we realize we can all move forward. The anxiety of failure can disable us or it can motivate us to make decisions, but recognize that failure is not the worst thing in the world.

I remember when I accepted the position to become rabbi of this congregation, now almost 25 years ago. It happened very quickly. Talk about decisions and uncertainty! I was very comfortable in my role as associate rabbi in Houston and had plans to stay there for many years. Then a call came on a Tuesday morning in June: would I consider submitting my name? On Thursday night I had a phone interview with the Search Committee, flew to New Orleans on Sunday for a personal meeting and had a job offer on Monday morning. This was not the usual rabbinic placement process. We were filled with uncertainty, fear and excitement as we arrived in August of 1984. I think I can safely say that it seems to have worked out well for all concerned. And if it had not, then an alternative would have to go into effect.

An important lesson in all this is that we do not have to be 100% certain before we make decisions and act. Maybe 60%, even 51% is good enough. When opportunities arise, challenges are before us, decisions need to be made, we weigh the pros and cons, without seeking absolute certainty. By this process we can be good to ourselves and compassionate to others as they make choices. We should also realize that success may be temporary. A right decision today may not continue to be right for tomorrow. We make the best choices possible and when they don’t develop the way we imagined, we can always change without beating ourselves up in the process. Rather, we begin anew.

Rabbi Kula writes: “It’s not that life is a crapshoot. It’s that vagaries and uncertainties are a part of the human drama. Our journey presents us with catastrophes, traumas, losses, gains, wonders and miracles. And in the end we must act on faith, not that it will all work out as we want, but that our best guess is good enough, that it will somehow lead us to a place of discovery, of new perspective, of a wider self.” (p. 91)

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. In rabbinic literature there are stories that when God began to create the world, God created and destroyed ten worlds before settling upon this one. Early on God saw that this one was not perfect either, but finally realized that even for God there is no certainty. Just because you create something does not mean you have control.

During this season of the year we say, “L’shanah tovah tikotevu” to one another. Within those words is hope that we will be inscribed for a good year, a year of life, but there lingers the possibility, the implication, that it might not be. Help us O God to live with this and all other uncertainties.



All quotations are from Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, by Rabbi Irwin Kula, Hyperion Publishing, 2006.


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