When I was a freshman in college, I was introduced for the first time to the wild world of Facebook, which was very new and open only to college students. As I worked on filling out my profile, I got to a section that asked for a favorite quote. Stunned with the opportunity to share with this elite world of Facebook users something that truly reflected me, I pondered what to include. I eventually stumbled across some words of wisdom ascribed to the philosopher Bertrand Russell which really struck a chord in me, and stayed as my official Facebook quote for many years.
It reads “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
I saw in this quote a painful realization about myself, that while I aspired to wisdom way before I had any sense of what that might actually mean, I was beset with doubt about so many things. I was so jealous of people who seemed certain of themselves. In my eyes, they confidently strode through life as if they were born full of worldly knowledge. What secret did they know?
This quote by Bertrand Russell helped me make sense of my aspirations of wisdom and my lived experience of confusion and little clarity. His words helped me fight back against that worry that certainty and wisdom should always go together. I was quite disappointed, though, to discover in writing this sermon that those words were not actually Bertrand Russell’s after all, but rather someone on the Internet making things up. Doubt, it seems, may be the greater part of wisdom after all.
I once googled “the dangers of doubt” and every response on the first page was from a religious organization or writer. This tells you a lot about a certain understanding of religion. Religion sometimes promotes simplicity, a way of making sense of our world that resembles the classic Rubik’s cube. Life is often puzzling, but if you just make some changes everything will click into place. The more honest promoters of this perspective will include that it can take a lot of hard work to make those changes. But ultimately, the message we hear is that there is an answer, even if we haven’t found it yet.
Doubt, in this worldview, is the enemy, because if you don’t think you can solve that Rubik’s cube we call life and death, good and evil, success and failure, love and loss, if you doubt that there is a solution to the problems every one of us encounters, then you’ll give up and not make the changes necessary to see the world correctly. The Baal Shem Tov taught about the true nature of Amalek, the evil tribe that followed the Israelites as they wandered in the desert and cruelly murdered all of those who were weak and trailing behind. This arch-enemy of the Jewish people, the Baal Shem Tov said, is doubt (through gematriya). Doubt catches you when you are weakest and slowly whittles away the will to persevere and live as God desires.
I want to fight back against this simplistic fear of doubt. Life is rarely a Rubik’s cube. Almost nothing we are facing is a difficult yet fully solvable puzzle. I believe that most of the time there is no single correct answer, or maybe even a correct answer at all. Life is almost always messier than our brains would like.
So here are the key questions for this day of Yom Kippur, this day of judgment, this day of fate and the power of change. How can we thrive as moral and growing human beings in a world where certainty is more often than not an illusion? How do we minimize anxiety and paralysis on the one hand, and their cousins arrogance and blind enthusiastic over-doing on the other hand? How do we discern when conviction will increase justice and compassion, and when it leads to hate and violence? How do we relate to others who doubt those things in which we are confident and are confident where we are full of doubt?
Let’s learn from some unlikely characters folded into the background of the stories of our biblical heroes. Yet it is these characters who speak to our dilemmas, our desires, our doubts. Many of you may have heard the midrash containing Abraham’s origin story and how he rejected idols with great confidence. His father Terach sold idols, and Abraham smashed them.
But watching this all go down was a character you probably don’t know as well. Abraham’s brother Haran stood quietly in the background. He didn’t quite have the confidence to take the brave stance of Abraham or to worship idols the way his father did. Haran felt caught in the middle, uncertain who to believe, not sure why everyone else had such strong opinions.
Haran’s story is a bit of a tragedy. As things escalate between his brother and his father, he witnesses Abraham being taken to the great king of the land, Nimrod. He listens intently as Abraham challenges the most powerful man of his time, and he gasps in horror as Nimrod nastily tells Abraham, if your God is so powerful, perhaps you will be saved from the fire. Haran’s eyes flicker to the large firepit already aflame.
The midrash tells us that Haran’s mind is ploog, the Hebrew word for divided or split. (Remember that word for later.) He is tired of living in uncertainty. He thinks to himself, well Abraham has been a great brother, and who knows he could be right! I’ll wait and see, if he survives the fire, I’ll declare myself on his team. But if he burns up, I guess I’ll be Nimrod’s number one booster.
Miracle of miracles, Abraham emerges unscathed from the fire. A happy Haran pledges his allegiance to his brother, but a rather angry Nimrod tosses him into the fire next. Alas he does not fare so well. The midrash relates that he burned up – but here’s the interesting thing, he only turned to toast on the inside. On the outside he had the appearance of wholeness and integrity, but his inner life was unable to sustain the tension of a divided self, and so nothing remains at all.
Haran, according to the midrash, is the first casualty of that all too human quality of doubt. He couldn’t figure out who he agreed with (Etz Yosef). Upon seeing Abraham’s strength of character and successful confidence, he declares that he too agrees with him and will adopt his confidence.
Haran is particularly relatable to me in this moment. I am often plagued by doubt. I am often uncertain who I agree with on any given topic. I am drawn to those who have a confidence in their views and clarity of outlook on the world.
I remember a time in rabbinic school, in theology class, when our professor Dr. Rachel Adler brought a guest to talk about their faith in God. This person had my respect, yet they shared a calm certainty of belief that astonished me. Integrity, for me, required acknowledging my own doubt, to be honest about where my faith falls short. But for the first time I realized that another person could with integrity to who they are exist in certainty instead. Just because I struggled with my understanding didn’t mean everyone else had to as well.
I believe Haran’s mistake is not in doubting, but in trying to borrow someone else’s certainty. Abraham’s faith might inspire him, but it does not need to become Haran’s faith. To declare and desire and act with false certainty, borrowed from someone else, cuts you off from the roots of your own authentic experience, leaves you exposed, like dry tender, to the fires of life. To have integrity, and perhaps someday wisdom, you cannot borrow certainty or fake confidence or clarity. You must be planted in your own streams. Only that way will you flourish.
Malcolm Gladwell, always in search of unusual stories worth telling, found himself curious about Dr. John Rock, one of the creators of the birth control pill. Dr. Rock was also a devout Catholic, so his role in advancing birth control against Church doctrine is surprising. But Dr. Rock was guided by words from his childhood pastor, words he never forgot: Never ever let anyone else hold your conscience. And I mean never let anyone hold your conscience for you. (As heard on Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell.)
If you are not able to act with inner integrity, don’t get burned by trying to be someone else, even if this role model truly does have integrity and authenticity. You can follow or be inspired by or learn from other people, but never let anyone else hold your conscience for you. You must be planted in your own streams.
Haran teaches us that it is better to be honest about your doubts than to steal someone else’s certainties.
Our next teachers are the average people of Elijah’s time. Elijah was one of the great early prophets and he did not like what he saw the average people doing. He considered himself a lonely man of faith, a true heir to Abraham’s solitary and brave confidence in God. But he went too far in his own certainty. He murdered priests of Baal, and when God tried to teach him a lesson, he refused to learn. Elijah’s lack of doubt in himself and his mission plant him so firmly in his own views that he can no longer grow. He can no longer learn. He becomes root-bound, stuck in concrete confidence. All he can do is condemn those who do harbor doubts.
Interestingly, what most frustrates Elijah about the average people of his time is not so much that they are worshiping idols. (1 Kings 18:21) Rather, it is that they are not consistent. With some disgust and anger Elijah declares: How long will you hop between two opinions, between two branches? One day the people worship God, the next day they worship the Canaanite deity Baal.
Elijah imagines them as a bird hopping back and forth between two branches, not sure where to stay, where to linger. “On the fence” is perhaps an equivalent idiom in English. The assumption is clear – you can only really be in one place or the other, they are mutually exclusive. To be on the fence, or to hop back and forth between the branches, leaves you without a foundation upon which to build your inner home.
But these people who Elijah cannot understand, these hoppers between different thoughts may not be so bad after all. While Elijah is the spiritual heir of Abraham, these people are the spiritual heirs of Haran. They have inner divisions, uncertainties, an inability to conclusively decide on where they seek wisdom and meaning. Yet unlike Haran, they do not pretend to greater clarity than they have. I imagine them to have an open generosity to possibilities, rather than a closed off contemptuous certainty. They manage to live in a complicated world with their own version of integrity. They are humble eclectics, honoring wisdom where they find it.
They are, more often than not, us – inheritors of many branches of humanity, hopping here, hopping there, sometimes holding nostalgia for a simple clannish consistency, but other times full of curiosity and delight in the experiences of those we befriend, those we marry, those we live with and work with and heal the world with.
There is another kind of doubter, one that I have no intention of trying to salvage as a model and reflection of us at our most earnest and our best. This is the doubter as scornful cynic, the habitually contemptuous of even the possibility of something worth believing in, the doubter who would rather poison the water than let anyone else drink from it. The scornful do everything they can to undermine others, to create doubt in the world.
In Psalm 1 we learn about the “happy person” who we hope to be, and the dangerous opponents of the happy person. There are those who scorn and mock, who devote their lives to tearing down rather than building up. They are the shadow side of Abraham and Elijah, only capable of destroying. While they may demolish idols they also ruin much that is good. And they have no instinct to build up, to create, to nurture, to grow anything else. They are poisonous (see Tikkunei Zohar 27b:2).
In Psalm 1, the scornful sit. There is no furniture, no path, no pride, no future, for the scornful. Incapable of movement, incapable of standing for anything, they sit stuck in their scorn. Shockingly, they sound a lot like Elijah in his worst moments, like fools and fanatics.
In Psalm 1, the happy person does not have anything to do with such people. Rather, they plant themselves on streams of water – in their own vital, growthful, authentic, nourishing inner life. The streams – palgei mayim, literally the divisions of water – remind us of Haran with his condition of ploog, dividedness. He should have remained rooted there.
In my imagination, Elijah saw the people incorrectly. They were not like birds hopping unhappily and unable to home between two branches, incapable of being on both at the same time. At their best, they were planted on numerous streams, roots gathering nourishment from diverse waters which ultimately flow from the same source.
Doubt can be many things – certainly it can hold us back from proper action and be a source of frustration. But doubt can also dull our certainty enough that we can keep learning and growing; doubt can reflect our honest integrity, allow us to be eclectic, to appreciate beauty where we find it and not fixate so much on purity. Life is full of diversity. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) teaches that when two rabbis disagreed, both arguments flowed from the same heavenly source. Eilu v’eilu, these and these had the potential to be holy.
You can’t plant your tree on someone else’s streams. They’ll run dry for you. You have to celebrate who you are and where you are. Root yourself not in concrete certainty, but in humble fluidity, open to change, owning what you know and what you don’t know. May the year ahead fill you with many doubts, and may you find in them the path to wisdom.
To watch the sermon, go to 1:42:00 in the video below.