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Living with Uncertainty on the Eve of the Election

October 30, 2020

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Lech Lecha.

We are nearing the end of one of the most contentious election seasons of our lifetime, and while many congregations across the country might be hearing sermons about the importance of civic engagement, here that feels redundant. It feels more necessary to address the question of what our tradition can teach us about living with uncertainty.

Uncertainty is nothing new for us. We have spent the last eight months not knowing how this virus would affect us and our loved ones, how our daily routines and long-term plans might be altered, and when things might return to some semblance of normalcy.

Even before the pandemic, our political landscape was chaotic and unpredictable. Having reached the point where no headline could truly shock us, we may not even realize that we are bracing ourselves for the worst every time we check the news.

Now, we prepare ourselves for an election night that might not end with clear results, and that might possibly lead to weeks of advocacy and protest, court battles and civil unrest, though of course we all hope that this will not need to be the case.

How can our Jewish tradition help steel us for the weeks ahead? In this time of uncertainty, we might look to our ancestor Abram, known for his unshakeable faith.

In this week’s Torah portion, God summons Abram, saying, “Go forth, from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen 12:1-3). Though this is their first encounter, Abram’s response is immediate compliance,  “Abram went forth as the Eternal had commanded him…” (Gen. 12:4).

Midrash Tanhuma tells us that this call was the first test of Abram’s spiritual mettle: “The Holy One, blessed be God, did not mention any specific place. This indicates that this was a trial within a trial, as in the case of a man who embarks upon a journey without being aware of his destination. What did Abraham do? He took his possessions and his wife and departed”(Midrash Tanhuma Lech Lecha 3:4).

At first glance, this is a covenantal relationship at its best. God summons Abram with the promise of greatness and blessing, and Abram, wordlessly, starts his journey, taking his family with him. It looks like things are going to be simple. But of course they are not.

Over the course of this parasha, Lech Lecha, Abram, Sarai, and Lot encounter famine and infertility, kidnapping and assault, war and familial infighting.

God’s promises become more specific; God’s commands more complex. God promises Abram land and progeny, and in return Abram must go where God commands and do what God asks of him: build an altar, sacrifice animals, and, ultimately, circumcise himself and all the men of his household. None of that was mentioned in the original summons.

Furthermore, even when specific action is not required of him, Abram must maintain his covenant with God even in the face of danger, disappointment, moral dilemmas, and yes, uncertainty.

And Abram seems okay with that during his first three encounters with God. He obediently travels to Canaan, Egypt, and Hebron, along the way passing Sarai off as his sister, parting ways with his nephew Lot, and going to war with Sodom.

It isn’t until the fourth encounter that Abram talks back. When God says to him, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1), this time, Abram cannot silently obey. “O Eternal God,” he says, “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless …. Since you have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir” (Gen. 15: 2-3).

Just as God is telling him not to be afraid, Abram’s deepest fears come tumbling out. Without a child to inherit the land and the covenant, all the promises that God makes to him will expire when Abram does. Abram wants to be certain that his future is secure. Don’t we all?

God’s response is not to grant Abram a child immediately, but rather to promise that he will father a child, that his offspring shall be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that they will inherit the land he stands on (Gen. 15:4-7).

Still, Abram is not satisfied. “O Eternal God,” he says. “How shall I know that I am to possess it?” In response, God performs a miracle, bringing down fire to consume a sacrifice that Abram offers. But then, God reveals a troubling truth about Abram’s future:

“Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. … And they shall return here in the fourth generation” (Gen. 15: 13-16).

God provides reassurance, but not immediate gratification. Neither does God gloss over the challenges that lie ahead. If Abram is to truly be in covenant with God, he will have to do so knowing that the path will not always be smooth, or certain. And God, for God’s part, must reassure him, not that his descendants won’t go through troubling times, but that they will not be alone, and that they will come out on the other side.

Biblical scholar Aviva Zornberg writes that, “[W]hat is most striking here is the indeterminacy of the journey. What is left behind, canceled out, is defined, clearly circled on the map of Abram’s being; but his destination is merely ‘the land that I shall show you’: from ‘your land,’ the landscape of your basic self-awareness, to a place that you will know only when the light falls on it with a difference” (The Beginnings of Desire, p. 74).

One of the most difficult aspects of the times we are living in has been the indeterminacy of them. Without clear and consistent messaging about the virus, without trusted leadership at the helm, without even basic agreement about the facts, it is difficult to move forward or even to plan for the future.

So, too, with the election. We would love to go to sleep on Tuesday night, or at the very least, wake up on Wednesday morning, knowing the results of the election, knowing the election was free and fair, and knowing that there will be a peaceful transition of power. But like Abram, we might have to move forward in the weeks to come without a clear knowledge of where we are headed or when we will arrive. We will need be patient, stay hopeful, and have faith, as Abram did, that we are headed in the right direction.

We also need prepare ourselves to act. We might need to stand up and speak out, as Abraham will do in the next parasha, to ensure that every vote is counted, and to advocate for a peaceful transition of power. And we will need to prepare ourselves, no matter what happens, to continue to do our sacred work of pursuing justice and practicing kindness, caring for the vulnerable and protecting the rights of the marginalized. We can start be reaching out to organizations that are already doing this work, such as: We Go TogetherProtect the VoteRAC-PA, and One PA.

Having faith and doing the work are not mutually exclusive, but rather, two sides of the same coin. This week, Dr. Alyssa Gray, a professor of Talmud at HUC-JIR, released a paper entitled “Uncertainty, Action, and Faith: Talmudic Theological Musings for the Year(s) of COVID,” which I encourage you to read. Exploring several rabbinic stories about living with uncertainty, she concludes that the central theology of the rabbis is, “God is, human lives are lived out in a world of uncertainty, and a proper Jewish path is to act with hope and trust ….. [and] a confident faith in the truth of two propositions: (1) God wishes us to act righteously and swiftly on behalf of others in this world; and (2) what is right and good will ultimately prevail. … both (1) and (2) are true. There is a gap, a tension between them, but not a lifeless void like the cold silence of deep space. We manage the gap and tension between (1) and (2) with hope and trust, the nuts and bolts of our faith.”

We also manage that gap by recognizing that we are all in this together. Whether future events call upon us to be patient or proactive, empathetic or enraged, we will walk forward with trust in God, faith in the democratic process, hope for a just and peaceful future, and the support of our sacred community.

Dr. Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, shares this prayer for living with uncertainty, “God, I am walking to the edge of a cliff. Build me a bridge. I need to get to the other side” (pp. 144-145). Together, through both faith and action, we will build this bridge. Together, may we find the courage to begin the long, slow walk across it, to the other side.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz