On Uncertainty and the Festival of Freedom

The Coronavirus worldwide crisis caught us all by surprise. None of us expected the huge consequences of the outbreak of the virus and the implications of the fight against it. The toll of many victims that the virus is taking, along with the massive damage to the economy, mass unemployment, isolation and quarantine and especially the inability to speculate when and how this will be over, put us all in a position of total uncertainty.

Why do we suffer so much from dwelling in a space of uncertainty? Why is a forest of question marks so scary and threatening to us? The answer is simple. One of our basic psychological needs on ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ is a sense of safety and security. Home, family, career, business, savings and future plans give us a sense of safety. But it’s an illusion. In one moment everything can go awry, just like we are experiencing these days. Nothing can be planned for the future; careers and businesses are at high risk and families are forced together or split into isolated cells. Our constant search for shields and shelters stems, at its core, from the inherent insecurity imprinted in our personality. We are afraid of our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, our lack of control, and so we have to take on many layers of protection.

True personal freedom lies in the ability to feel safe and secure when in a place of uncertainty, to feel resilient when we are vulnerable and exposed, and to experience power when we have no control whatsoever over the circumstances. This is the essence of Yetziat Mitzraim (the Exodus) and the narrative of Jewish freedom. Egyptian culture was a culture of safety – the pyramids, the Nile, the undefeated empire. However, this false safety is not more than an illusion. Plague by plague, God disintegrates the Egyptian walls of Illusion. Yetziat Mitzraim is the courage to go toward the desert of uncertainty. The desert has nothing to offer – no water, no shelter, no jobs, no savings or investments. Even the manna that descended from heaven every day melted at the end of the day and could not be stored for the next day.

This is true freedom. The ability to lean fearlessly into uncertainty for a long while and to feel comfort and security precisely in the landscape of question marks. There is redemption in a profound experience of uncertainty. It’s an opportunity to embrace our vulnerability and to realize that there is something much bigger than us. It is an opportunity to discover that the real sense of safety comes from the divine side of us and our engagement with it. “Let go and let God”! Only when we can let go of our need for certainty we will be truly liberated. We gain our freedom when we find the courage to replace our defense system of using exclamation marks with the question marks that leave room for curiosity and personal growth. We see how the four sons in the Haggadah are ordered according to their ability to question. The wicked son is the second best because at least he uses question marks, and so he is placed above the simple son. At the bottom of the scale is the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

The Coronavirus crisis holds a mirror to humanity and reminds us all how vulnerable we are and how a tiny virus we cannot see can drive the entire world insane. But, it is also an opportunity for freedom and liberation. Being able to live peacefully in a space of uncertainty is real freedom. This is the secret of Jewish survival. Our forty-year journey of uncertainty in the desert gave us the resilience to survive all the later exiles and annihilations. As the late Meir Ariel wrote in his song: “We have survived Pharaoh – we will survive this too.”

To quote from one of my favorite contemporary authors, Brene Brown, in “‘Gifts of Imperfection”:

“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty…

We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of ‘faith’!

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty”

The only certainty we have in life is G-d. Hashem is here behind the scenes. All the other elements which provide any sense of safety and certainty are illusions. The essence of the faith of Avraham was his courage to leave his home and assets behind, to have faith in G-d and thus to walk into the uncertain – Lech Lecha. Moshe Rabbenu led Bnei Israel into the unknown, by presenting them with the only source of certainty – the revelation of Hashem. This is the secret of the survival of the Jewish people – the courage to go on a journey of uncertainty with full faith in Hashem.

With the help of God, we will all emerge from this crisis, stronger, more resilient and – most importantly – more open to the truth of our vulnerabilities and the benefits of our feelings of uncertainty.

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