An Imperfect Security

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
February 17, 2014
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I love clearing my inbox: the petty thrill of Gmail informing me “no new mail.” Frustratingly, it happens less and less often. When I tell congregants, colleagues, or friends that I’m “behind” on work, they smile knowingly, and say with forbearance, “and you always will be.” Truly, it would be nice to be on top of my work, my beliefs, or even my weight, but these things seem to be forever shifting, a moving target. We can’t control every little thing; although we can achieve nearly thing. The key seems to be becoming more at ease with it. I no longer believe in being settled – and I barely try to be – perhaps, it’s not so important. 

Voltaire said, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd position.” That sums it up nicely. Is there a real, unique, objective truth out there, in some Platonic form or ideal? I doubt it. I am not a relativist, but more and more, I tend to believe that many things are subjective. Surely, some truths are better than others: they are more compelling, have better explanatory power, or fit the evidence better. Furthermore, some so-called “truths” are inadmissible: bigotry, non-vaccination of children, communism. And we may believe that our opinions are immutable, that our joy is finite, or that our capacities are fixed, but I consider that to be a false premise. Just as in politics, it’s not flip-flopping to change one’s opinion by admitting new information – senator Robert Byrd said one may “anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it” – the same is true outside politics.

All told, in most instances I am willing to struggle with what’s true and what’s not, and struggle to hold onto my faith and integrity. In life, there are so many Cassandras of mistrust: naysayers, nudges, bullies, and gainsayers. It’s often hard to prove to myself that I am doing the right thing. It becomes necessary to carry one’s sense of self, one’s personal sense of goodness, and a faith that what we do matters. It’s a tenuous grasp, but as my rabbi said, “if you never drop your drum stick, you’re holding on to it too tightly.”

This is about as good as a faithful Jew may hope for. “A disciple came to the Rabbi of Kotzk with a problem: ‘I keep brooding and brooding and I am unable to stop.’

“‘What do you brood about?’ asked the rabbi.

“‘I keep brooding about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.’

“‘Does it matter to you?’

“‘Rabbi!  If there is no judgment and no judge, then what does all creation mean?’

“‘Does that matter to you?’

“‘Rabbi!  If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?’

“‘Does that matter to you?’

“‘Rabbi! Does it matter to me?  What do you think?  What else could matter to me?!’

“‘Well, if it matters to you so greatly,’ said the rabbi of Kotzk, ‘then you are a good Jew after all! And it is quite all right for a good Jew to brood; nothing can go wrong with such a person.’”

This tenuous grasp is an imperfect security, and that’s nearly as good as it gets in this life.  We may never be settled in this life; our thoughts, feelings, or ideas may never stand totally firm, and that’s alright. The journey toward becoming “settled” is likely an asymptotic one. Perfection may be an endeavor only for the end times. As midrash says, “The world to come is like the sea and the world you come from is dry land… This world is like the wilderness, and the world coming from it is like the settled land.” (Ruth Rabbah 3.3)

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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