Learning to Live with the Unpredictable
לזכות רפואה שלימה לאימי מורתי מינדל ליבא בת פיגא פרל בתוך שאר חולי ישראל
The last five years and perhaps most acutely the last nine months have been for me on a very personal level a lesson in releasing myself from the need to control everything. As humans we crave certainty. We imagine that our lives can be run and controlled entirely by our own decisions that will lead to certain outcomes. Modern life has become even more adept at making this illusion a reality. From the mundane such as ‘Waze’ predicting our exact ETA to any destination, to the incredible man on the moon, to the formidable advances in medicine that are continually finding more and more cures to the incurable. Futhermore we are almost at the stage of, through genome mapping, being able to genetically engineer a human baby to our specific needs. The debate over whether these advances benefit mankind or not will continue indefinitely however one thing is clear, humanity craves the predictable and the certain. It is continually marching towards advancement gripping with all its might certain knowledge, certain outcomes and a certain future.
In reality however the world we live in proves to us the very opposite. The unpredictability of religious extremism, climate change, Geo-politics and the meltdown of the eco system, among many other variants means there is much we cannot control. On an individual level any illness, unpredicted life event or personal crisis can often lead an individual to question their ability to control their own fate. Indeed it is often the inability to control our lives in one area that leads us to ‘cover up’ our doubts and existential crisis by attempting to control every other aspect of our existence.
It is not just the scientists, hi tech innovators and researchers that are on the perpetual journey to certainty. In her book ‘Plato at the Googleplex’ Rebecca Newberger Goldstein offers a fascinating view of Greek thinking as reflected in the Greek term kleos which means glory, renown, extraordinary or what others think of you. In the face of man’s mortality and short lived life, what mattered in Greek culture was the legacy you left behind, ‘the extraordinary’ the glory of your actions as reflected through the approval of the masses. Our mortality can be conquered through fame. Not much has changed today, in fact things have got progressively worse. We constantly seek the approval of others, whether it is the amount of ‘likes’ or reactions we receive to our facebook or twitter posts, approval ratings in the political and social realm or the ‘reality show’ culture that looks to quick fame and fortune as a fix to anonymity and often individual insecurity. Existential angst is superficially plastered over with short term fame and fortune and approval of others. We seek to trump our mortality through a legacy of public approval and instant fame.
This dialectical swing between the need for humans to control their conditions and its opposite, the awareness of our absolute mortality and lack of certainty finds expression in Rav Soloveitchik notorious Adam 1 and Adam 2. In his essay ‘the Lonely Man of Faith’ using the paradigms set out in the first two chapters of Bereshit he describes two kind of human beings. Adam1 is our scientist, he is mandated by God to conquer nature, rule over it, control it, and subdue it. He is as we described above the person that craves certainty and answers. He question in order to receive answers, he seeks to find a solution and he will not stop until he has found one. If Adam 1 is the scientist then Adam 2 is the philosopher. Much like Socrates he asks the questions not to get an answer, but to reflect on the mystery. He seeks neither certainty nor control. He is mandated by God to work and guard the garden. He yearns for a higher realm, to live in the presence of a greater force, but not necessarily to understand or conquer it. Adam 2 as we reflected above represents the moment we retreat from our battle towards absolute certainty. He is the man on the roller-coaster of life riddled with doubts and crises, staring incurable disease in the face. He is the man who knowingly acknowledges that not everything is within his control. Rav Soloveitchik’s paradigms are not two different individuals, they are in fact part of the same person, the lonely man of faith, who from his very inception has been mandated by the Divine to live a life oscillating between these two extremes. For the Rav it is Halacha that allows this swing to exist, and a rejection of either Adam1 or Adam 2 is for him a rejection the Divine plan. We must live between the two, striving to control, innovate, create and march forward and equally admitting the limits of our human capabilities.
The first two narratives surrounding human beings in Bereshit encapsulate this idea with immense profundity. In the first narrative found in chapter 3 of Bereshit we see Adam and Chava in Gan Eden. They have everything at their disposal, the garden is given to them in its entirety. There is just one thing that must be left untouched, one element of their surroundings that remains a mystery, an unanswered question – the tree of knowledge. That says God you must not eat from. That is to remain out of reach rooted in the realm of the unknown. The serpent, the Nachash comes along and plants a doubt – a chashash in the mind of Chava. He says to her “You will not surely die (if you eat from the tree) for God knows on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and bad”. (Bereshit 3:4)
Says the Nachash you too can be like God knowing good and evil. You need not remain mortal sentenced to the annals of history, forgotten and unknown; you can become like God an immortal being who possesses absolute knowledge and certainty of being. The temptation is too much to bear and so Chava and afterwards Adam in an attempt to defy the one mystery that remains, eat from the tree of knowledge. The consequence of their eating should not be surprising to us the readers. Their immortality is instantly terminated and they are exiled from the Garden. They are each given a new role, no longer are they to lead a simple and uncomplicated life. The act of eating from the tree of knowledge, trying to achieve immortality in a quick and instant way, and attempting to become like God controlling their reality, leads them instead to a life that infused with the very opposite experience. Man must work the land, he must plant seeds, tend to them, wait for them to grow. He must learn to work for his future whilst living with the uncertainty of the present; will the rain fall in its time? Will the seeds take to the ground? Will the saplings grow as they should? Waiting for the crop to come up, for the fruit to flourish is a lesson in oscillation between Adam 1 and Adam 2- The process of growth is not instant.
The woman too must labour for her fruits. She must carry her unborn foetus for nine months. Any woman who has carried a child will know that there is something about pregnancy that remains the most uncertain and in many ways humbling time in one’s life. The child is hidden, and even with all the technology we have developed in modern times, the uncertainty and lack of control remains very real for most mothers in the gestational period. After the child is born, mothers too must learn to expect the unexpected; they must give up an element of control in their lives to raise healthy and stable offspring. Moreover in an attempt to become immortal and be God-like through eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge, Chava now learns a discerning truth – that immortality is hard won and our children are our legacy, but that legacy needs work, it needs to be tended to. Child rearing is not a science, we must work for our future and we must also recognise that some things are beyond our control.
The second narrative takes place a short time later and features the children of Adam and Chava, Kayin and Hevel.
The very names given to the sons themselves say much about the existential angst and yearning of the parents. Kayin as we are told was named as such for Chava said “I have acquired קניתי a man with Hashem”. (Bereshit 4:1) There is no reason given in Torah for Hevel’s name but the meaning is that of nothingness/emptiness/a passing breath. In these two names we once more see the dichotomy of human existence. We note the movement between being a possessor, an innovator, a partner in creation with God, and at the same time the existential angst associated with a world of ‘nothingness’, a passing, fleeting moment, the knowledge that everything is out of my control.
The narrative that ensues between the two brothers continues this theme in a devastating way. The Torah tells us that Kayin decides one day to sacrifice to God the fruits of the land he has carefully and painstakingly cultivated. Hevel, a shepherd, following on the initiative of his brother also brings an offering from his flock to God. For reasons unbeknown to the reader God accepts Hevel’s offering and not Kayin’s. What follows in the narrative is strange and obscure leading to an array of different theories and interpretations. I offer here one idea that follows the theme we have been discussing. Understandably perhaps Kayin’s anger burns, he must surely be seething that he, the initiator, the one who thought up the idea, the one who bought the first offering had his rejected. He ploughs the land and waits for its results, and it works in his favour. The results are exact, its fruits are harvested and his alone to be enjoyed and possessed. By his very nature he is a ‘possessor’ a person who must have everything; certainty and control are the quintessential features of his existence. Now that has been shot through. There is something he cannot control, an event he cannot understand, and he is angry. God promptly warns him that if he cannot control himself and rise above the uncertainty and his inherent need to know ‘why’, sin will creep at his door.
In a verse plagued with ambiguity we are told “Kayin said to his brother Hevel; and when they were in the field Kayin rose up against his brother and killed him”.(Bereshit 4:8) What did Kayin say to Hevel? Why did he kill him? Why did he not heed to God’s warning? The questions are left unanswered in the narrative, they are perhaps obsolete. For in a world where I kill my fellow brother because I cannot have what I want, and I cannot control what I need, the question of ‘why’ is no longer important. Cain the possessor, the extreme expression of Adam 1, must kill Hevel, the manifestation of nothingness and the mortality of existence, the extreme Adam 2 in order to gain control. Sometimes coming face to face with our own mortality, the limit of our abilities as humans, the threshold of our cognition is too much to bear and in an attempt to repossess, to gain control, to become like God we kill the Hevel within ourselves. This is a grave error, for as Rav Soloveitchik has reminded us, we need both elements of self to live a life mandated by God. The consequence of Kayin’s actions are again unsurprising, instead of the life he desires, one of possession and predictability he is told: “When you work the ground it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a vagrant and wonderer on earth”. (Bereshit 4:12) The planting and tilling will yield no predictability, and he will no longer have a permanent place of residence. He is destined to live a volatile and capricious existence bereft of any certainty and stability. He must learn to live outside the realm of controllability.
Living in Israel today we are exposed on a daily basis to this very dialectic. We are probably one of the most innovative countries in the world. We are constantly creating and developing new ideas in every field of expertise. We possess the ability of Adam1, to conquer the world, to be visionaries and pioneers in all areas. Yet equally we are reminded, a little too often and in a devastating way, of our inability to control everything and anything. We do not know what will be from one day to the next. We can be standing by a bus-stop, driving our car to our child’s Shabbat Chatan, painting the front of our homes or simply going about our everyday business of shopping and tragedy can strike. We have become far too adept at accepting the unpredictable, and acknowledging the limit of our mortality. We don’t need reminding that life is so very uncertain. These events shake us to our core they make us ask the difficult questions, they bring the inner Adam1face to face with the inner Adam 2. We face our mortality and we ask what legacy will we leave behind? What are we fighting to achieve? What areas of our existence can we and should we yearn to control.
The devastating events of the past weeks make us look at individuals such as Daphna Meir ע”ה and try to work out what really matters. That raising children, fighting against disease, treating every individual with dignity is what is worth struggling for. That though no one knew her before her death, since she did not seek instant fame and fortune, no one will forget her after her death, for her indelible spirit will remain entrenched in the mind and soul of anyone who read about who she was. According to her husband Daphna would joke about death and its unpredictability. Her very life, according to the many things I have read about her, was a lesson in rising above that which one cannot control and yet equally recognising our limits. She was Kayin, in the way in which she wanted to bring into the world innovation and goodness through hard work and process, yet unlike Kayin, she also knew not to kill the ‘Hevel’ within. She understood, as we do living here in our precious but unpredictable land, that there is not always a solution to every ‘why’ and that living between the known and unknown, the triumph and defeat, the predictable and unpredictable is the very essence of our humanity and something we should be aware of and perhaps learn to embrace.
 A.J.Heschel in his book The Sabbath expresses this idea in regards to what Shabbat gives to mankind. He writes: Inner liberty depends on being exempt from domination of things as well as domination of people. There are many who have achieve a high degree of political and social liberty but only a very few who are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent. P89.
 I would like to thank Amira Rosenberg of Zichron Yaakov who during our classes on Heschel and Shabbat planted the seeds of this idea in my head and the ladies in the class for helping me develop them to fruition.
#Heschel #humannature #AdamandChava #KayinandHevel #knowledge #RavSoloveitchik