Mystery and Uncertainty – The Power of Wow

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“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

― Richard Feynman

At certain times, such as when negotiating a divorce settlement or custody agreement, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutiae in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, as their lives and families are unraveling, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the legal document that comprehensively anticipates every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.    

I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.  And so I must warn you – if you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing), then you are probably not going to like this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which is the term for those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.

In Chukat, we read about the laws of the Red Heifer, the quintessential mind bender in that the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination.   Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that the adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.  

The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may decide that God doesn’t exist or lacks power or compassion. And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).

Lets Talk About Love

In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness. But too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating TED talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationships, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery.

If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil – that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).

As said by Charles Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Capitalizing on that fact, the family purity laws of Jewish marriage are based on cycles of the known and the mysterious, the permitted and the longed for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a case for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.  

The acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered. Therefore, the chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.

Mark Batterson, author of, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars,” sums it up nicely: “Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance. Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery. Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny. Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy. Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.” In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty. Wow!

 

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Growing Your Relationship Capital

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, was addressing a room packed with students. “Why is it,” he asked, “that there are only thirty-one verses in the Torah to describe the entirety of the act of creation by God, and yet, when it comes to describing the building of the Tabernacle, it goes on and on for hundreds of verses.”

For the last three Torah portions, we have been reading the “blueprints” for building the Tabernacle, and now, in the Torah portion, Pekudei, the building process itself is described.  Is this necessary? Honestly – it seems redundant and somewhat boring.

Rabbi Sacks explained that it is nothing for God, an Infinite Being, to create a home for man, but it’s quite another thing for man to create a home for God – especially when this holy building project followed on the heels of the sin of the Golden Calf. And the sin of the Golden Calf is especially egregious and puzzling, since it followed on the heels of the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.  

During revelation, the Jewish People were enveloped in a mass ecstatic experience, proclaiming their faithful devotion with these famous words: “N’aseh v’ Nishma,” meaning, “we will do and we will hear.”  So deep was their love for God at that moment, that they had no preconditions for accepting Torah. Imagine your beloved asking you to do something for him or her – do you need to know the exact details before consenting?

But the experience was transitory. The Jewish People quickly rose to the occasion, and then, having risen so high, they had nowhere to go but down. It is one thing to be swept up in an ecstatic moment, but it is quite another to maintain it for the long haul. 

 Any relationship can be sparked by infatuation and it’s easy to get caught up in a moment of intense feelings. But for a relationship to endure, one has to relish and savor it, day after day, week after week, etc. In tasking us with the building of the Tabernacle – where we did ordinary tasks repeatedly for a prolonged period of time – God was teaching us a lesson about the real nature of love. 

 More so, in discussing the Tabernacle, there is an unusual statement made. We read of this in the Torah portion, Shemot, where it says: “Asu Li Mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham,” (Exodus 25:8) meaning, “Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them.” The obvious question is that this statement appears to be grammatically incorrect. “Sanctuary” is in the singular, and yet “them” is in the plural. On a deeper reading, however, it is the essential point and purpose of why the Tabernacle is to be built in the first place. The commentaries explain that the Tabernacle must be built within each and every one of us. We must create a home that is welcome, open and loving for our Creator. We must make a home for Godliness in our individual lives. For when one feels at home, and in this case when the One feels at home, that is the greatest expression of love.

 Another allusion to this is the fact that the Torah begins with the letter Beit, which can also be read as the word “bayit” meaning “house.” This shows us that the reason we were created was to create a home, a dwelling place for God in this world, and a place where others can feel at home as well. To do so requires constant work and focus, and to make a house a home we need it inviting and welcoming for others. We want a home filled with love and light.

Real love doesn’t extinguish after one intense fiery moment, but it burns with an eternal flame. When you love, the seemingly mundane and repetitive moments are anything but, and they add up to a lifetime of deep and meaningful connection. The cup of coffee lovingly put on my desk every morning, my smile across the table to my husband that catches his eye and speaks wordlessly, the small daily constant gestures of thoughtfulness and devotion – these comprise the blueprints of intimacy. It is the very nature of such repetition that lays the foundation of how we build loving lasting relationships, and a fit home for God, indeed. After all, as the saying goes, if you want an important guest to stay at your house, you better provide a comfy chair.

Repetition reminds us of what is important, essential and the underlying reason and purpose for what it is that we are doing in our lives and with our lives. It is how we invest in a relationship so it doesn’t sputter out when infatuation fades or crumble when the work of relationship begins. Rather, it is the path through which our relationship with God – and with others – can become more real, deeper, more intimate, and over time, evolve into its true relationship potential.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1.  Think about the mundane moments in your life. What do you possibly take for granted that when reflecting more closely show you how loved you are? List at least five things that you receive or give in this category. Consider making a mental shift from doing things in a habitual, repetitive and mundane way to investing in your relationship. Can you bring a new awareness or mental presence to rote activities? What changes?
  2. Is your house a home? Is it a place you feel you and others are totally comfortable? Is it a dwelling place for God? If so, what makes it that way? If not, what can you do to create such an environment?
  1. What new loving behaviors can you do consistently to invest in and grow your relationships?