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Holding Uncertainty At The Confluence Of Universality And Particularism

“As human beings, we struggle with uncertainty. As Jews, we live it. Torah and Talmud teach us how to sit with uncertainty and how to hold multiple truths. Our wisdom tradition is expansive, not narrow. ”

In today’s world of complex and seemingly unproductive conversations, debates, negotiations, and diplomacy at a governmental level, one might desire a return to a simpler time, the “good old days,” a time of ease and productive interaction between groups of people. When we look to the past, we might see and yearn for a level of civility or shared values that allowed a clarity of shared communal purpose. And, these simpler times we recall may or may not have been simpler for others … 

In today’s world, we can easily become overwhelmed and exhausted by the assault of a seemingly endless cacophony of opinions and beliefs fueled by a firehose of information spewing some version of truth or even complete fallaciousness dressed up as fact. I do my best to find “unbiased information,” as I hear many promise; and I am aware that nearly all information comes with bias, even my beloved public radio broadcasts.

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As American Jews, we are particularly vulnerable to this fatigue. In addition to our experience of the world’s challenges as Americans and our experience of the issues that must be addressed within our own country, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and families, we must constantly look over our shoulders at the perceptions of the world about us as Jews. And before we can take a deep breath, our identity as Jews is immediately conflated with opinions about the State of Israel. Regardless of our level of knowledge about politics and history, we are called to speak intelligently about Israel, a country we may not even have visited, let alone experienced up close, with even more clarity and facing more ferocious questioning, than we would ever be asked to speak about our own country. Each time deadly conflict occurs in Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank, we are called to  account, to justify ourselves, to have clarity on matters that are far from clear.

This is exhausting. Since we were in Kindergarten, we’ve had our quick answer in store for why we celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas. We are used to explaining why we need time off from school or work to observe particular holy days that may or may not be correctly placed on the secular calendar. We have become practiced at explaining why we don’t see Jesus as Messiah. Yet we are ill equipped to speak about Israel. And this is no surprise at all. Hundreds and hundreds of skilled negotiators and powerful leaders have been unable to resolve the conflict in the Middle East for more than 70 years. In addition, we carry in our bones and sinews the heavy and very real trauma of the Shoah/Holocaust as well as centuries of exclusion and millennia of pogroms, force migration, and blame for all sorts of hideous acts we didn’t commit. And many of us also carry the lived taunts on the playground, the questions about our horns, the quotas and discriminatory practices.

So given this challenge, what can we do?

First, we must breath and ground ourselves in that which brings us strength and comfort. Within our breath is Ruach haKodesh, Holy Breath-Spirit and Source of Strength (Gevurah) and Kindness (Chesed). This Breath of Life is expansive and vast, flowing through all that lives. It has deep roots and capacious, ever-growing branches.

From this place, we have the ability to access deeper wisdom and calm our reactivity. When we are less triggered, we can see beyond the black and white binary to the extraordinary nuance of the conflict in the Middle East and all human experience — it is so much easier from a distance (as Americans are from Israel and Gaza) to project clarity of right and wrong; and this is a false sense of certainty.

As human beings, we struggle with uncertainty. As Jews, we live it. Torah and Talmud teach us how to sit with uncertainty and how to hold multiple truths. Our wisdom tradition is expansive, not narrow. 

Yet, we crave certainty and applying this inheritance of holding as true and valid multiple and competing narratives is difficult work, especially when we are being bombarded — literally and figuratively, our welcome is being questioned, and our sense security is threatened. 

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Somewhere between the particularism and the universalism that are both formative in Jewish values, ethics, and culture, we have always found a way to navigate the world in which we live. Rather than imagining a return to simpler times, may we find the strength to imagine and co-create a varied and collaborative future. May we have the fortitude, compassion (self- and outward-), and vision to cultivate and nourish relationships that help dispel misperceptions. May we have the grace and appreciation of difference that allows us to listen and hear and pay attention to the pain and uncertainty of others as we do to the words of Sh’ma. May we create here in our world, the peace our liturgy offers us as a petition to the Divine Mystery, and which so many of us have grown from its particularity (al kol Yisrael) to its expansive desire for peace to descend upon — or arise from, perhaps — all who dwell on Earth (al kol yosh’vei tevel).

Sim shalom, tovah uvracha, chein v’chesed v’rachamim.

שִׂים שָׁלוֹם טוֹבָה וּבְרָכָה, חַיִּים, חֵן וָחֶסֶד, צְדָקָה וְרַחֲמִים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עַמֶּךָ. וּבָרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ, כֻּלָּנוּ כְאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ, כִּי בְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ  נָתַתָּ לָּנוּ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, תּוֹרָה וְחַיִּים, אַהֲבָה וָחֶסֶד, צְדָקָה וְרַחֲמִים, בְּרָכָה וְשָׁלוֹם. וְטוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְבָרְכֵנוּ וּלְבָרֵךְ אֶת כָּל עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרֹב עֹז וְשָׁלוֹם

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמְּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשָּׁלוֹם. אָמֵן

Grant peace, goodness and blessing, life, grace, open-kindness, charity and mercy upon us and upon all Your people. Bless us, Divine Parent, all of us as one, through the light of your Presence, for it is by the light of your Presence that You have given us, YaH, our Divine Power, the Torah of life of love and kindness, of charity and mercy, of blessing and peace.

May it be good in Your eyes to bless the whole people of Yisrael, and the whole people of Yishma’el, and all who dwell on Earth* with the mightiness of Your Peace.

* These are words I learned to add to my prayer for peace from my teachers in rabbinical school. It is now common to hear the extension of this particular blessing for kol Yisrael (all of the people of Yisrael) to kol yoshvei tevel (all who dwell on Earth) in many Jewish Renewal, Reconstructing and Reform communities. The explicit addition of kol Yishma’el remains less common beyond some Jewish Renewal worship spaces.

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