Courtesy: Rabbi Jan R. Uhrbach
The Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons – Rosh Hashanah, 2001
In the early days of the Hasidim, there happened to be at that time a very learned man, a man who prided himself on his education, and who boasted of being enlightened. He made a practice of going from one Hasidic rabbi to another, to all the various tzaddikim, in order to debate with them about their faith, and refute the proofs of their claims, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned.
Finally, one day, he came to Levi Yitzhak, the rabbi of Berdichev, with the same intent. When he entered the tzaddik’s room, he saw the rabbi walking up and down, a book in his hand, immersed in ecstatic thought. The rabbi took no notice of his visitor whatsoever. After a time, however, the rabbi stopped, gave the man a brief glance, and said, “But perhaps it is true after all!”
In vain did the learned man try to rally his self-confidence. His knees shook, for the tzaddik was terrible to behold and his simple words were terrible to hear. But now Rabbi Levi Yitzhak turned to him and calmly addressed him: “My son, the great Torah scholars whom you debated, wasted their words on you. When you left them you only laughed at what they had said. They could not set God and God’s sovereignty on the table before you, and I cannot do this either. But, my son, only think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.” The enlightened man made the utmost effort to reply, but the terrible “perhaps” beat on his ears again and again, and broke down his resistance.
Why am I telling this story today? Because I suspect that many of us come here today with a complex mix of feelings and beliefs not dissimilar to those of the man in this story.
To the man in the story, the rebbe represents two things (1) the path of faith, and (2) God. The man comes to confront those who profess faith, to confront God, and to challenge: to express his doubt, his anger, his contempt, his frustration. But he also comes. He comes back time and time again, to tzaddik after tzaddik, rabbi after rabbi. It is as though he keeps placing himself before God to say, “I don’t believe in you!”
Why would someone do that? Why keep challenging? If the man is really sure that faith was utterly foolish he would simply ignore all the rabbis who profess faith. But he keeps coming to argue. Why? I believe it is because he wants to be convinced. He keeps arguing until he can find the rabbi who can defeat his arguments. This is a man who wants order in his world, he wants things to make sense, he can’t accept “old-fashioned” beliefs which don’t square with his modern understanding of things and with the events in history he and his ancestors have witnessed.
Many of us feel the same today. Some of us who usually have strong faith feel our faith severely challenged by last week’s events. Many of the things we might have said merely a week ago now seem hopelessly outdated and weak — “old fashioned,” unable to withstand the argument against faith presented by reality that we are witnessing. Others of us who have always had trouble believing in God, or who have been sure that we don’t believe in God, now feel justified and confirmed in our doubts, or in our outright denial. We are angry, confused, frustrated, hurt, anguished, and lost. And we are here today with a need to challenge — to express our anger, and anguish, our doubts.
But we come. And we come because on some level we want to put forth our best arguments and be proven wrong. We want to be convinced, or at least reassured, that there is order and justice and love in the world. That chaos and evil will not forever prevail. We come because we need to pray.
There is no question that Rosh Hashanah is difficult this year. And as I said last night, this is not the first time in our history that Rosh Hashanah is difficult. For some of us it is difficult not only because of national events, but because of personal ones as well.
And I want to digress for just a moment to remind us all that our personal pains and losses and concerns, are still relevant, and important, and real — as are our personal joys and sense of blessing. We ought not to let them become completely dwarfed by the magnitude of what we has occurred this past week, and we ought not to feel selfish or petty if we are still concerned with our own lives and our own needs.
But Rosh Hashanah is difficult this year. It is hard to praise God, to talk about God’s covenant with us, to talk about today as Yom Ha-Din — to assert that God is a just and fair Judge, or even that there is a Judge. It is very hard to take seriously that our prayers and repentance matter; that anyone is listening.
But you know what, if we are really honest, I think many of us would have to acknowledge that it is always hard — that full engagement in the Yamim Noraim is rarely easy. It is not just a question of how to believe this year, but a question of what we believe every year, and why we come here.
One way or another, most of us have within us this very learned gentleman — the one who comes to challenge — not just this year, but every year. Let’s give him a name. This year, we would call him pain, fear, anger, confusion. In other years, we might call him cynicism, arrogance, complacency, certainty. He is anything that keeps us from taking seriously the claim that Rosh Hashanah, prayer, teshuvah, Torah, observance — matters. He is the part of us which keeps us from believing that something Divine and holy is at stake.
So what did Levi Yitzhak do with this man? What do we do with that part of ourselves — our doubt and anger, our inability to honestly assert faith? It is no accident that Levi Yitzhak is the rebbe in this story — he is best known for his great love of the people Israel and all humanity. And he responds to this man in love. He meets him where he is — he doesn’t push him away. We must do the same. We must allow ourselves our anger, our doubts — we have to challenge and confront and battle and rant and rage — we can’t push that away.
But Levi Yitzhak’s response to the man is very interesting. He doesn’t engage in debate. He doesn’t try to refute the factual arguments. We can’t either. We can’t argue factually with the voice inside us that looks at the world and says, leit din v’leit dayan — there is nojudgment and there is no Judge. We can’t prove God from history, we can’t prove God using reason. We can’t measure and prove that there is more good than evil, more love than hate, more holiness than desecration, more order than chaos. We can and must assert that both exist — that good, love, holiness, and order are every bit as real as their opposites. But we can’t say conclusively what that proves. We can’t have certainty.
Levi Yitzhak offers this man one word: perhaps. When I first read this story, I was horrified. This man is in a crisis of faith and you say to him, “maybe?” What kind of answer is that? It seems shockingly weak. Barely meaningful, much less comforting. But think about it. If our faith in God must be based in certainty, it will be very fragile indeed. It will be easily shattered by evidence such as this to the contrary. An absolute claim is easy to reject — the answer to it is, “maybe not.” But a claim of “perhaps” is very hard to reject completely. The only answer to it is, “absolutely not” — and who among is so arrogant as to say, “absolutely not?” So “perhaps” works — a faith based on “perhaps” is in actuality much sturdier.
And its much sturdier because its also more true. Why did the word “perhaps” shake the man up so much? “The terrible perhaps” — why is the word “perhaps” so terrifying? Because not only is a faith based on perhaps more true, its the only truth.
What Levi Yitzhak was really saying to the man is that “perhaps” is the only thing that is true, after all — “perhaps” is true, nothing else is. Because as we learned this past week, we don’t really know anything. The first step in teshuvah, in crowning God as sovereign, is to open ourselves to that not knowing, and embrace it.
It is also the first step in faith. As Rabbi Levi Yitzhak said, “They could not set God and God’s sovereignty on the table before you, and I cannot do this either.” I can’t prove God to you. I can tell you what I believe. I can tell you that I believe in the holy, in the good. That I believe that there is a loving, protective, redemptive force who I call God and that I can at times sense a whisper of God’s presence. I can tell you that I believe that the Torah reflects Divine wisdom. I can tell you that I believe that each individual matters, that our teshuvah matters, that prayer matters. But I can’t set God and God’s sovereignty on the table before you; no one can. I can’t tell you I know; no one can. And anyone who purports to know God and God’s will is not speaking truth.
What I can offer you is “perhaps.” Our task is to embrace perhaps. There is a beautiful teaching in Masekhet Derek Eretz Zuta, one of the minor tractates of the Talmud, which says: ohev et ha-shema u-sna et ha-kama b’kakh. Love “perhaps,” and hate “so what.” There is a difference between “perhaps” and “so what.” “So what” is nihilistic: nothing matters, there is no judgment and no Judge. It is, in a sense, another form of certainty. And certainty about God and God’s will, or certainty that there is no God and therefore that nothing matters, can lead to devastating consequences. We have just witnessed the horrific results of one such person who claims to know God’s will, and have heard the ugliness from the mouth of others in our own country who believe they know God’s will.
Certainty makes us less than human. Perhaps is respectfully and humbly hopeful — it suggests that maybe everything matters, but acknowledges that we don’t know. Perhaps is grounded upon the truth that we ourselves our limited in our ability to know. Perhaps is a reflection of our humility, and therefore our humanity.
Perhaps is very subtle, and very powerful. Perhaps enables us to pray even in the face of the evil we have just witnessed. Perhaps enables us to honestly assert faith as faith. Think about it — faith and hope — two words that are premised on uncertainty. Once we know, then neither faith nor hope have any application.
What are the risks of a theology based on perhaps, a faith based on perhaps? The risk is that we will be wrong — that our faith and hope will prove to have been foolish. But here is what R. Nachman says: “Better to be a fool who believes everything than a skeptic who believes nothing: not even the truth.”
And that is why Levi Yitzhak said to this man, “perhaps.” Perhaps is an opening in the armor. Perhaps is hope. To say perhaps is to recognize that life is to be lived, not predicted.
To say perhaps is to allow ourselves not to think the worst. I have a very dear friend who taught me this lesson a few weeks ago. She has been battling a terrible form of cancer for the last two and a half years. Miraculously, this is the third Rosh Hashanah that she is alive to see since her diagnosis with this horrible disease. But this year, she has run out of conventional treatments, and all the test results are showing that the cancer is getting worse. We were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, and she told me how terrifying it is to be approaching Rosh Hashanah knowing what her g’zar din — decree of judgment — is. We talked about it at some length, and then she pointed out that in truth, she doesn’t know what the decree is. She is not a pollyana, given to false optimism. She confronts reality head on, she knows what the test results are, and she knows what they mean. But she also knows — really knows — that neither she nor the doctors nor anyone else really know what the future will bring. Miracles rarely happen, but they do happen. And we are never informed in advance what the decree, so to speak, will be. And she told me that as frightening as the uncertainty and the not knowing is, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Because how horrible life would be, if we knew.
That is the power of perhaps, if we have the courage to embrace it, rather than run from it.
And that is what we must do today.
Perhaps there is more going on here than I thought.
Perhaps there really is justice and there really is a Judge.
Perhaps there is a loving Being called God, and in some way we don’t understand, perhaps our prayers really matter to God.
Perhaps on this Rosh Hashanah something will happen — perhaps anything can happen — perhaps something really profound will happen.
Perhaps good really does eventually triumph over evil — always.
Perhaps I myself can change for the better.
Perhaps within me is the capacity to change someone else’s life for the better.
Perhaps within me is the capacity to change the world for the better
Perhaps within each one of us is the capacity to bring God back into the world.
“Only think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.