“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.
Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. ”
— Erich Fromm
“And so you see I have come to doubt
all that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.”
— Simon and Garfunkel, Kathy’s Song
Human beings do not do well with uncertainty. The unknown causes us discomfort, anxiety and fear, and in response, we build protections against doubt. The human propensity for cognitive comfort far outweighs the propensity for discovering truth. We will avoid learning in order to avoid questions, and we will produce explanations — any explanations — for phenomena that we do not understand. We aim to quiet our mental unrest rather than discover the nature of reality. An underlying reason for our tendency to find quick, makeshift answers goes back to our origin as a species. In a world where one is either predator or prey, one does not have the luxury of taking time to contemplate truth, answers that are ‘good enough for now’ suffice.
Being averse to uncertainty presents considerable obstacles to human learning and understanding. Our brains are wired to make meaning out of confusing information, but we are not wired to find accurate meaning. Truth is seldom self-evident. The deeper the truth, the more elusive it tends to be, and the more it requires a journey into the unknown.
This week G-d commands Abraham to leave the comforts of his familiar environment:
Go for yourself, away from your land, the place you were born, your father’s house…
and sends him on a journey towards an uncertain destination.
…To the land that I will show you.
G-d was guiding Abraham to continue, in a grand way, on the path that he had begun.
Questions are the precursors to uncertainty. Most questions are relatively comfortable, but when they challenge what we already believe to be true, we find the greatest discomfort. We will often respond to even the suggestion of such questions with a great deal of anger and upset. Perashat Lekh Lekha teaches us that such manner of response is not the Jewish way. Abraham emerged as the pre-eminent forefather of Israel because, rather than avoid these difficult questions, he explored them from an early age and continued asking and examining them throughout his life. At the opening of our parasha, G-d thrusts Abraham out of his comfort zone and onto a serious path of exploration. G-d assures him that there will be a destination, and that he will finally arrive at a conclusion, but it must be discovered rather than pre-determined. G-d helps Abraham to continue to lift himself out of his primal fight-or-flight thinking and into the deeply beautiful world of conscious thought and contemplation that can only be achieved from bravely exploring the uncertain.
We are told by the Hakhamim that, maaseh abot simian labanim – “the acts of the forefathers are signs for the children”. One meaning we take from this is that we look to the acts of our forefathers in order to gain direction towards choosing the proper paths of our own lives. When we look to Abraham, among the noble attributes he lived by, the most fundamental and transformative was his commitment to live in, and explore, uncertainty. To him, questioning was a ticket to truth, and he asked all manner of questions, no matter how unsettling. Abraham’s legacy encourages us to explore the uncertain elements of our lives and the world. It is a legacy that informs us that finding answers is a lifelong pursuit, and that, by embracing the discomfort of uncertainty, we avail ourselves the ecstasy of discovery. It is within that ecstasy that G-d’s spirit is found.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck