“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!