“Book with confidence” has been my phrase of the week. As we begin to see the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel we are starting to formulate plans for what to do in the weeks and months ahead and a holiday is definitely high on the list of necessities in the coming months. But it is difficult to know exactly what will happen. How far will we be able to travel? Will local activities be open? Will we be back in lockdown?! So companies are advertising all sorts of ways in which people can book now despite the lack of certainty going forward.
Certainty has become a hallmark of our society. We have created a world in which we expect companies to give guarantees, we insure everything we own and do and teach our children to always plan ahead. The past two months have been a reminder that nothing in life is certain – no one planned for this eventuality – yet despite the obvious challenges it has created, I believe there is a beauty to it that we must hold onto long after 2020.
There is an age-old religious conundrum as to how we balance being proactive with faith. On one hand, it is perhaps summed up best by the famous story/joke of the man in the flood who refuses all help as the raging waters rise around him. After turning away boats and helicopters in the certainty that God will save him, he drowns. When he meets his Creator he asks why God didn’t save him to which God simply responds, “I tried!” Judaism calls this “hishtadlut” – making an effort – and it is unquestionably valued in our tradition to the extent that there is a prohibition against relying on miracles.
On the other hand, this story only emphasises one side of the puzzle – if the man would have taken a boat or a helicopter he would have been saved regardless of whether he had faith in God or not. So where does faith come in? How does faith manifest in a world where we are expected to work for what we want and exert ourselves?
This is not a new question – the balance of hishtadlut and faith, bitachon, is one that many of our greatest sages have discussed. Many describe how faith manifests in putting in limited effort – only the amount that is required. This approach seems is well rooted in Talmudic and later sources but I’d also like to suggest something else.
You see even in the most extreme of religious circles, where perhaps hishtadlut is kept to a bare minimum, the outward practice of faith often does not translate into genuine feelings of trust in the Almighty. Additionally, I believe that even those of us with bank accounts and life insurance policies (which have been interpreted by a minority as lacking bitachon) are still able to exercise faith and instil in ourselves a genuine sense of trust in God. We simply need to embrace the uncertainty that still exists all around us. And for me, there are two key ways to do that – tefilla and Shabbat.
Tefilla, the concept of prayer, is a centrepiece of our religion, yet it is often something that we find difficult to connect to. The language barrier, repetition and seemingly fixed text are just some of the reasons we struggle so much – so let’s leave all that aside and focus on the essence of prayer itself. There is an age old debate between the Ramban and the Rambam as to the biblical source for the obligation to pray – while Nachmanides maintained that the biblical requirement only applied to a time of crisis (“et tzarah”), Maimonides held that the Torah mandates us to pray each day. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in characteristic brilliance, taught that there is no fundamental disagreement here – even Maimonides links prayer to a time of crisis. However, whereas the Ramban limits this to specific crises, the Rambam ties this to the “ever-present, existential crisis of our very mortality”.
Prayer, as an experience, is about taking time to metaphorically throw up our hands and recognise our inability to fully control our lives. It is the chance to sense our vulnerability; the chance to whisper, “I don’t know what will happen,” without those relying on us hearing. When we surrender that veneer of dominance we feel that sense of freedom that comes from not having to worry because someone else is in charge. It’s like the bliss of knowing that someone else is responsible for your children for a few hours (remember that??) – prayer reminds us that despite our best efforts, it is God who ultimately slots the pieces into place.
The beauty of uncertainty also manifests in the special gift of Shabbat. A day on which our endeavours are limited is one that we think should cause us further anxiety. The inability to react to stock market fluctuations, cook food for our unexpected guests or drive across town to check on our parents may initially sound frightening but in reality is the key to genuine calm – what our Sages refer to as “Menuchah”. The tranquillity of temporarily relinquishing our ability to affect meaningful change in the world around us is what Shabbat is all about.
So as we slowly return to a world where can once again “book with confidence”, I am coming back with a renewed sense of who is truly in charge. Although we increasingly find ourselves in a position where we must have all the answers, the challenge of not knowing what the world will look like in six months is also the opportunity to live in the moment. It is the peace and calm of being able to depend on the true Master of all. It is the beauty of uncertainty.