Living with Uncertainty (Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782 sermon, Rabbi David S. Widzer, 9/6/2021)
Like many of us, I spent part of this summer watching the Olympics, especially the gymnastics competition. I saw an elegant jumble of legs and arms, torso and body, launched improbably into the air to heights unattainable by normal human beings, twisting and turning and rotating and bending in improbable configurations. To the untrained eye, the blur of movement makes it nearly impossible to discern what has happened. To the well-trained body, it is a highly sophisticated rhythm of action, a finely coordinated sequence of events, honed by hundreds of hours of practice, ingrained in muscle memory because the brain does not have time to think. Tumbling through the air, adjustments made in nanoseconds, controlling the bending of limbs and the position of bodies, before landing miraculously upright, most often, unscathed (most often) by the time spent off this earth. Glorious.
But, as we learned this summer, the lyrical poetry of a gymnastic routine can be disrupted. In the midst of a gyration, the mind engages erroneously, disconnecting from its pre-established, practiced route, and attempts to reassert control. Legs and arms fail to answer in anticipated fashion. The horizon blurs, the ground shifts, the air that once was a comfortable environment becomes instead a sea of uncertainty. Not knowing where you are, not knowing where you are going, not knowing what your body is doing, not knowing how you will return to earth. Terrifying. It is only with patience and reconditioning, mental and physical, that this uncertainty can be overcome.
There’s a cutesy name for this affliction in the sports world– the “twisties.” But when they knocked out of competition the world’s greatest gymnast at the world’s foremost gymnastics meet this summer, we learned that the “twisties” aren’t so cute. They are a dangerous disorientation that can cause great injury. In withdrawing from most of the Olympics, Simone Biles wasn’t “taking it easy” or quitting. She was, quite simply, safeguarding her life against the dangers lurking in uncertainty.
I admire her courage and her willpower. I admire her willingness to put her mental and her physical wellbeing ahead of anything else, including winning a medal. I think she is a role model for us all of strength and character.
And so, I do not intend it to be flippant or belittling to use her experience as a metaphor for us all this past year. I think we have all been suffering from a case of the “twisties” of the soul. We have had a year of spiritual displacement and disorientation, a year of living with uncertainty, a year of not knowing which way was up.
In the first months of the pandemic, time itself seemed to operate differently. People referred to the forty-ninth, or seventy-first, or two hundredth day of March 2020. The Oxford English Dictionary selected as one of its “words of the year,” the term, “Blursday,” meaning “the difficulty in determining what day of the week it is.”  Did that happen to you, the uncertainty of all of the days running together?
Months passed as science sought to understand the virus and devise ways of defeating it. What was the best course of action to take? Should you wear gloves or a mask or a hazmat suit when you went to the grocery store? Did you need to wipe down each box of cereal with Lysol when you brought it into your house? How was the virus transmitted? Was it physical contact? Aerosols? Respiratory droplets? The uncertainty meant that we adopted some practices and then abandoned them for others, as our knowledge grew.
There were constant questions with no fixed answers. How could our children learn in online classrooms? How long would businesses need to be closed? Could I get away with wearing pajama pants with my shirt and tie for a Zoom meeting, as long as I didn’t stand up? We wondered our way through months and months of waiting for certainty.
And, even when a path became clearer, for vaccines are amazingly successful at preventing death, serious illness, and even major levels of infection, still the uncertainty lingered. Would enough people get vaccinated to stop the spread? Could we return to a more “normal” life? Could we stop wearing masks? What about these variants? Would “Delta” disrupt our anticipated plans?
The twists and turns have been hard on us. We contort and contract and expand and flail our collective limbs in an attempt to find ourselves in mid-air. And still, we don’t always know where we are, or where we are going. Uncertainty abides.
We know from psychology that when things feel uncertain and uncontrollable, we should focus on what we CAN control: what we eat, how much we sleep, how we spend our time.  Beyond that, Jewish tradition reminds us that we have faced uncertainty before in our people’s past, and we have learned how to confront it and find our way through. There is wisdom from our tradition that we can use. We have guidance from our past on how we live in a time of uncertainty.
One such example came in 586 BCE, when the kingdom of Babylon conquered the land of Israel. Our settled way of life, centered around the sacrifices we offered to God at the Temple in Jerusalem, was completely upended. The Temple was destroyed and we were displaced to faraway Babylon. How could Judaism continue when we were no longer in our homeland? Or as the Psalmist wrote, “How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” 
But Judaism adapted to its new circumstances. New types of leaders emerged, scholars and sages who codified and redacted our sacred scripture, while prophets continued to preach comfort and hope. Absent a place to bring offerings, we created the forerunners of synagogues, places for study, for communal gatherings, and for worship with words and prayers. We altered our religious reality to fit the changed surroundings. We let go of rituals that no longer were possible and invented new ways of relating to God and to one another. We responded to the uncertainty of exile with creativity and adaptation.
Does that feel familiar? I don’t know that our ancient rabbis could grasp a Zoom Shiva Minyan, but I think they’d quickly recognize the concept behind it. This past year has seen an incredible flourishing of Jewish creativity, as we all figured out how to adapt Jewish practice in a COVID world. Interactive online Torah study and worship. A Purim “Stay-in-Your-Car-nival.” Virtual communal candle-lighting for Chanukkah. My annual rabbinic convention was held entirely online, complete with a digital lobby for schmoozing and hanging out between sessions. The entire “Bar Mitzvah-Industrial-Complex” quickly pivoted, with live DJs figuring out how to have virtual dance floors and digital games, bringing the entire party online. Just about every funeral home now will offer iPad live-streaming from their chapels and gravesites. My newborn niece had her babynaming online, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins Zooming in from across the country. Rabbi Shira Stern points out that many of these changes were already coming to Judaism, but we leapt ahead about a decade in a matter of weeks. 
This response to uncertainty of creativity and adaptation is apparent in society as a whole, not just in Judaism. Teachers, some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic, quickly learned how to teach online or in hybrid situations, adapting their classroom styles and syllabi while guiding their students through unprecedented times. Some big name beer companies and small local distilleries switched from making craft brews and bourbons to alcohol-based hand-sanitizers.  Tour guides moved their businesses online, offering virtual walking tours of Paris or the Sistine Chapel or the Western Wall.  These, and other examples, demonstrate how adaptation and creativity help us through times of uncertainty.
A second parcel of wisdom from Jewish tradition comes from the experience of Abraham and Sarah. Long ago, in a distant land, a voice calls out, “Lech lecha – get yourself and go to a land that I will show you!”  No further instructions or destination given, but Abraham and Sarah venture forth into the uncertainty, not knowing where they are going. There were no maps or Triptiks or Waze apps to guide them. As the therapist Estelle Frankel writes in “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” Abraham and Sarah become “ivrim, Hebrews, or ‘boundary crossers’ – those who leave the known for the unknown.”  They engage fully in the moment and depart without worry. The Torah records no anxious conversations, no “are we there yet?” whining, no anticipation of what could go wrong along the way. Throughout their adventures in the Book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are depicted as being fully present and appreciative of the moment they are in. When they eventually settle down and establish a homestead, the midrash describes their tent as open on all four sides, so that they might be able to see any wayfarer wandering by and bring them in for gracious hospitality. They would devote themselves to their guest’s wellbeing, one person at a time receiving their full attention. 
This mindfulness serves us well in a time of uncertainty. It is too easy to allow our minds to wander into the anxious realms of “what if…” and “could be.” Those roads are difficult to travel, paved with worry about the unknown that can consume us. One study by Harvard researchers found that some people “spend nearly half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what is going on right in front of them,”  and that “doing so typically makes them unhappy.”  Far better to remain focused on what actually is, than anxiously to anticipate what might be. Being “in the moment” during the pandemic meant accepting that we could not know everything without being worried that we did not know everything. It meant being able to engage fully with whatever we did to occupy our time. Some of us found we had hidden skills at baking, or completing puzzles or home repair jobs, or composing sea shanties. (It was a thing on TikTok. Ask a teenager for details if you’re interested.) We found more time to connect with friends we hadn’t seen in years, or with family across the miles, or across the dinner table. Mindfulness allows us to have the full range of emotions that uncertainty may engender – fear, anger, concern – without their debilitating effects. We can notice the feelings, recognize them, and name them, but not let them interrupt or upset what we are doing. It takes work to develop a mindfulness practice. (I was part of the two-year Clergy Leadership Program at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and still worry that my meditation sessions are only sequential napping.) But paying attention to this moment, right here, right now, without over-worrying about what happens next, permits us to focus fully on what is actually happening now, instead of focusing on the uncertainty of what might happen in the future.
A third piece of wisdom from Jewish tradition on dealing with uncertainty comes from the stories about the Exodus from Egypt. Fleeing from slavery and Pharaoh’s troops, we were forced by geography to pause at the shores of the Sea, uncertain of our fate. How would we get across? What calamity would we face if we were forced to return? Our future hung in the balance with the forbidding waters ahead of us and the chariots of oppression closing from behind.
While the Torah tells the straightforward story of Moses raising his staff, God parting the waters, and the Israelites walking across to other side, rabbinic literature posits several other versions of the narrative. You may know one of the most famous episodes, when the head of the tribe of Judah, a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav, bravely charges into the sea with such faith that God makes the sea part on his behalf. But an alternate version of the story is also instructive. In a Talmudic passage, Rabbi Meir imagined that, standing at the sea, each of the twelve tribes contended with each other over who would enter the water first. One said, “I will go down first into the sea.” The other said, “I will go down first into the sea.” While the other tribes were standing around and shouting at each other, the tribe of Benjamin all together took the plunge and went down first into the sea.  That was when the waters parted and redemption was at hand. We are told elsewhere in the Torah that there were 35,400 Benjaminites.  How did they cope with the uncertainty of their situation? By addressing it all together. As a community, they plunged into the sea.
Over the past 18 months, so many have found strength in their connections with others. Neighbors helping neighbors navigate their way through the pandemic’s ups and downs. Friends calling to check in on each other. Online communities playing “Dungeons and Dragons” or group chats of college buddies or weekly “wine and whine” sessions with other parents, commiserating about challenges faced, while imbibing a good vintage. People have found comfort in the knowledge that just about everyone is sharing in this experience. And while that may not provide any clear solutions, at least we are confronting the uncertainty together. That is the lesson taught by the Chasidic master, Rabbi Chayim of Tzanz, who would tell the story of a person lost in the woods, trying every which way to get out, without success. After several days of searching, the person encountered someone else. “My friend, I’m so mixed up in here. I hardly know which way is up. Please, show me how to get out the forest.” The other person replied, “I, too, am lost. I do not know the way. But now let us search for a new way forward together.”
Our TBS family knows the value of community in facing uncertainty. Like many congregations, the early days of the pandemic brought large numbers online for Shabbat services, larger than our usual attendance in person. I think people were just looking to be with one another, doing something familiar and meaningful. Over the summer, as we re-opened the building, I was privileged to watch the sheer joy pass across people’s faces as they entered the Sanctuary and saw one another in person for the first time in forever. We saw that same desire for connection when our Religious School families gathered last weekend for a parking lot ice cream social and “meet the teachers” event. There is still so much uncertainty in our world. But we know there is great strength in facing it together.
All of this wisdom from our tradition confirms for me what writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes in her book, “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.” She wrote, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes.”  Uncertainty can be a place for hope. It is a place for creativity and adaptation, a place for mindfulness and intentionality, a place for connections.
And that, in truth, is what Rosh HaShannah is about EVERY year. We never know with certainty exactly what the new year will bring. We never can chart out our exact path through the next twelve months. We never know what may befall us, for good or for not. There is always uncertainty about what lies ahead. This particular year, and this particular moment, the uncertainty feels particularly acute. The unknowingness and uncertainty have been brutal and staggering at times. But our liturgy reminds us each Rosh HaShanah: Hayom Harat Olam, today is the day of the world’s birth. Today the world starts anew. We cannot know for certain what it will hold for any of us. While that may be scary, that also means that today is eternally pregnant with possibility.  In the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. It isn’t always comfortable or neat. It is messy and unsettling. But possibility is the silver lining of uncertainty. So we can recognize a value in not knowing, even as we try to figure out how to make it through.
As we enter this New Year tonight, we are still tumbling, twisting and turning, sometimes unclear which way is up, which way leads out of the forest. But our tradition points towards ways to navigate the uncertainty. We adapt and change creatively like our sages in Babylon. We stay mindful and in the moment, like Abraham and Sarah. We take the plunge together as a community, diving into the waters of redemption like the entire tribe of Benjamin at the sea shore. Uncertainty will always be here. But so will hope for our future, along with our limitless possibilities and our potential for action. This is the promise of this, and every, new year.
May the uncertainty of the new year be matched by our hope for its potential.
May our creativity, mindfulness, and communal connections guide us along the way.
May 5782 be filled with health for all, happiness for all, sweetness and goodness for us all.
L’shanah tovah, a happy new year.
And together we say, Amen
 https://www.npr.org/2020/11/23/938187229/oxfords-defining-words-of-2020-blursday-systemic-racism-and-yes-pandemic  My thanks to Rona Hitlin-Mason for this important insight  Psalm 137:4  Workshop with Rabbi Shira Stern, April 2020, New Jersey West Hudson Valley Association of Reform Rabbis  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/04/business/distilleries-hand-sanitizer-pandemic.html  https://www.frommers.com/tips/miscellaneous/isolation-innovation-taking-virtual-tours-at-home-with-live-guides
https://www.itraveljerusalem.com/trs/virtual-guided-tours-via-zoom-itamar-ben-david/Genesis 12:1  Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing (Shambala, 2017), p. 16  Genesis Rabbah 48:9; Midrash Tehillim 110  As described in https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/05/health/practice-mindfulness-hate-sitting-still-wellness-trnd/index.html (See below for article)  “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, in Science Vol. 330, No. 6006, as published on https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1192439  Talmud Sota 36b-37a  Numbers 1:36  Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books, 2016) p. xiv  I learned this insightful understanding of Hayom Harat Olam from Rabbi Marcia Prager, by way of Rabbi Greg Wolf, “Open to the Present: A Response to Life’s Surprises,” Davar Acher by Rabbi Greg Wolfe, in “10 Minutes of Torah,” August 8, 2015; see