Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
What are the moments for you that cause the most anxiety? While we all have our own individual quirks and sources of nervousness, one nearly universal constant might be that we really don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty breeds anxiousness, and we humans like to know what’s coming at us.
Most of the time, however, we do a pretty good job of hiding from ourselves the cosmic truth that we just don’t know what the future holds. We structure our days with appointments and set notifications on our electronic devices to provide rhythm to our lives. We make life-altering long-term financial plans. We even add songs and binge-worthy TV shows to our streaming queues so that we know what’s coming up. But the bittersweetly dark existential reality is always there — even though Netflix’s autoplay tries to convince us otherwise, we just don’t know what’s up next.
To be sure, as assuredly calming as a dose of certainty might be right now, would we really want to know the future? Life would be robbed of all its mysterious grandeur. Moments of surprise and delight would fade away. So we live delicately with the poignancy of not knowing. Of course, it is in elevated moments of not knowing — like the illness of a friend or loved one, or on journeys to far-off lands, or the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 — that we feel the acuteness of our existential anxieties.
What’s made very real today is the question almost everyone will have to confront at some point in our lives: What do we do with our anxiety at uncertainty?
We see exactly this kind of challenge manifest in one of the Torah’s most famous stories. In parashat Vayishlach, in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob is making moves to reunite with his estranged brother, Esau. (You may remember that Jacob cheated his brother out of his rightful birthright inheritance, then fled out of fear of reprisal.)
As Jacob and his family return from journeying afar, he sends messengers to Esau to share his desire for rapprochement. Their message upon returning to Jacob is unnerving:
“We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”
It’s a moment of unparalleled uncertainty. What does Esau want? Will Jacob’s family and entourage be safe? What does the future hold? The Torah spares little in taking us into Jacob’s heart and mind:
Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”
Jacob’s answer to his anxiety is first to protect those closest to him, and then to forge ahead in service of his grander mission. What’s notable about Jacob’s response is that it doesn’t shy away from the reality of life. Jacob could simply have retreated at even the slightest possibility of hostility. Or he could have met a perceived threat with his own show of force. We might even imagine Jacob responding the way many of us do in similar moments of uncertainty: through denial, bargaining, false hopes, or magical thinking.
Instead, Jacob strikes a delicate balance that acknowledges the fragility of life, yet still hopes for the best. And in doing so, he opens himself to a world of possibilities.
It’s telling that this story revolves around the role of the journey. Jacob is a traveler — always on the move, always in search of that elusive stability in life. While the resolution of the story — two brothers embracing with love — is a peaceful plateau, the reality for many of us, I think, is that it is only through journeys marked by uncertainty that we are ever truly able to grow and learn from each other. It is when we embark out into the unknown, even at the expense of tapping into our deepest human anxieties, that we add the richest meaning to that which is already familiar to us.
Travel is one of the best ways to understand our relationship with global Jewish communities.
This is why the work of JDC Entwine is so critical and why travel is one of the best ways to understand our relationship with global Jewish communities. It’s how we can translate klal yisrael and am yisrael (the community and people of Israel) from textual concepts to lived realities. It’s how I came to discover that Lithuanian Jews in Vilnius sing the same melody for Lecha Dodi that I grew up singing in Thornhill, Ontario. It’s how I came to understand that while Georgian Jews in Tbilisi mark lifecycles with blessings at the Torah that aren’t as familiar to me, the communal celebration still felt like home, and I could depart with new spiritual ideas about what it means to be in community.
When we entwine our lives with worlds of difference, we make the sameness of our lives more bearable. That’s why while we abhor uncertainty, it’s also a hallmark of the human condition that we crave newness. But it’s more than novelty for novelty’s sake. The newness we seek is the learning about ourselves and others that comes from discovering the unknown. That’s why human mobility and travel are so important, and why we desperately crave the ability to return to a world of journeying.
In the meantime, we can take a page from the life of Jacob: Don’t pretend the uncertainties don’t exist. Forge ahead through the unknown in search of our hopes and dreams. Acknowledge that our fears and anxieties are reminders of that which is most important to us. For, despite the fleeting temptation of a life of simple settledness, would we ever really trade away our vibrant human life marked by discovery of the unknown?
Jesse Paikin is a black-coffee-drinking, Montreal-bagel-eating, Oxford-comma-loving rabbi. He is a Rabbinic Fellow alum with the Jewish Emergent Network – a group of seven path‐breaking Jewish communities revitalizing the field of Jewish engagement through traditionally rooted, creative, rich, and meaningful Jewish practice. Jesse traveled to Georgia and Azerbaijan with JDC Entwine in 2018, and works to bring the power of immersive experiences to today’s seekers of Jewish meaning and relevance. You can find him on Instagram @DailyTalmud, Twitter @JessePaikin, and online at jessepaikin.com.