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We have all heard the famous phrase that the only certainties in human existence are death and taxes. We are also well aware that the human being craves certainty in his or her existence. We plan for our future, we attempt to provide funds and care for our later years and for our descendants as well.


Yet even a cursory knowledge of general and Jewish history will illustrate that there is no real certainty in any facets of life – health, wealth, success, power, national stability, etc. – and that uncertainty is the norm in human existence- privately, nationally and internationally. Just look at the events of the past month here in our Middle Eastern society.


Everyone has been caught short - the experts, academicians, politicians, op-ed pundits and experienced diplomats and heads of government. They have been caught short and baffled by the real events that have transpired. All of the certainties of defense and foreign policy that were in place a scant few weeks ago have been replaced by the vast uncertainties that now face us, the region and the world generally. But this was to be expected since all of human life is based upon the principle of uncertainty.


But uncertainty is such an uncomfortable state of being that humans prefer to deny its persistent existence. We listen to our financial planners and invest our wealth according to their projections of what will be twenty or thirty years, and yet our rational mind tells us that they can't possibly know the future. We crave certainty so desperately that we behave very often in a fashion that is truly counterproductive to our true best interests.


Judaism always preached this doctrine of uncertainty. There is no people in the world that has existed as long and as dangerously in the milieu of uncertainty as has the people of Israel. Lately, I have been studying works of rabbinic responsa spanning four centuries. All of them carry the caveat that circumstances can change rapidly and that their decisions are not to be taken as prophecy, for “plague, war, expulsion and persecution” may certainly intervene.


Yet, interestingly enough, there is almost never any note of pessimism or depression in their words and writings. They apparently all acquired the knack of living productive, meaningful and even holy lives in a world of complete uncertainty. They did so by grasping the essence of Torah values, that good is ultimately a wiser path in life than evil, that faith in God is a necessary component in personal and national Jewish life and that by raising generations of loyal and committed Jews, the certainty of Jewish survival and accomplishments will conquer the uncertainties of the circumstances of general human existence.


A person needs an anchor of some certainty in one’s life. The Torah and Jewish traditions and the history and memories of the Jewish people can provide that anchor in our turbulent tide of constant uncertainty. All predictions regarding the future, all analyses about the present are inherently tenuous if not downright false. Judaism recognizes this as a constant fact of human life.


The Torah itself writes: “What is hidden belongs to the realm of the Lord our God but what is clearly revealed is that we and our descendants are to live a Torah way of life.” The Talmud taught us: “What has been hidden by Heaven, why are you curious to attempt to decipher?”


All of the certainties and ideological waves of the future of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are already to be found in the ash heap of history. So now we are being fed a diet of new certainties under popular words such as democracy, human rights, progressivism and international interdependence.


But even as these new certainties are being advanced and propagated we already feel the sneaking suspicion within ourselves that these certainties are not really so certain. They may not turn out to be the predicted panacea for all human troubles and struggles. For what is hidden from us – the future and its events and upheavals (and in this we can be certain that there will be upheavals) – belongs to Heaven. 


Judaism preferred to deal with the present and pragmatic rather than with the unknown, the mysterious and the uncertain future. We have to do our best, our most noble, our kindest and be committed to the preservation of our Torah and our people and state. That is probably the only certainty that we can glean from the events of human life that currently surround us. 

Shabat shalom.
Berel Wein

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