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Mystery and Uncertainty - The Power of Wow!

July 10, 2019

“In order to make progress,

                   one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”                 

                                                          ― Richard Feynman



In times of uncertainty and change, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutia in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way.  As the norms of their lives shift or unravel, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the anticipation of every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.


The Need for Closure Scale


I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.


I’m sure that somewhere in the world there are an enlightened few who are immune to this syndrome, but most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum from vague anxiety to analysis paralysis.  This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, refers to those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.  If you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing) then you may dislike or be uncomfortable butting up against the unknowable. 


It Ain't Figureoutable


The prime example of this is the case of the "Red Heifer," where the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination. Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.


When the Need for Certainty Creates a Closed Mind


The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may incorrectly and tragically conclude that either God doesn’t exist or that He lacks the power of compassion to prevent suffering.


And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).[1]   


The Spice of Mystery


In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness.


On the other hand, too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating Ted talk, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery. [2]


At the heart of the family purity laws of Jewish marriage is this cycle of the known and the permitted, the mysterious and the longed-for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a cause for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.


How Mystery is Coded into the Rituals of the Marriage Ceremony


If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil - that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).


The Jewish People and God - the Ultimate Marriage


The acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are not.


Therefore, chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.[3]  


As Charles Dickens so beautifully said, "It's a wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other."   And so is our relationship with the Ineffable One.  In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty.  Wow!





[1] See Kruglanski, A. W.; Webster, D. M. (April 1996). "Motivated Closing of the Mind: 'Seizing' and 'Freezing'". Psychological Review.

[2] The Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship

[3] See Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).


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