I have a quote on my bathroom vanity that reads, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it!” In the middle there is a stick person with his hands triumphantly in the air. Care to guess how many times I have exclaimed back to this piece of paper, “I do not love it! I do not love it??!”
I framed this quote and its invitation to sit with the unknown precisely because, it is so, so difficult! We want the comfort of believing that we determine our destiny, or if we do X, Y, and Z this way, we will get what we want. And while many of our actions shape our fate in profound ways, more often than not, we cannot control what happens to us or our loved ones.
There are some whose faith holds that God has a plan for them, and this is the reassurance that they need in times of uncertainty. And yet, there are also many of us who do not believe the Eternal directly intervenes in human affairs, or that the Divine is even capable of intervening. In fact, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even celebrated in Jewish life. Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks, “Why does Judaism validate doubt? Judaism takes doubt seriously because it takes people seriously. It recognizes that if Jewish life is to touch us, then it has to meet us where we are. That “place,” Jewish tradition understands, is often a place of bewilderment, of hurt, of skepticism.
And yet, this place of bewilderment or skepticism also invites us to unite with the Eternal. Reaching out to the Transcendent in moments of uncertainty is deeply Jewish. Our relationship with the Divine Mystery is not supposed to be easy blind faith.
Judaism doesn’t ask us to deny our doubts or fears. Instead, it invites us to feel God’s presence precisely in these challenging moments. Bringing mindfulness to these moments offers a helpful path through the struggle. When we feel powerless, the practice of gratitude can open our hearts connecting us to the simple and profound—our ability to see the light glinting off a tree’s verdant leaves or feel the cool sweetness of a breeze across our face, or to taste the sweetness of a summer peach.
Acceptance of the present moment is another mindfulness practice. It requires patience and strength to sit with discomfort because we do not always know when our thoughts or circumstances will change. Practicing acceptance while sitting with discomfort or the unknown invites us to move into the Divine Mystery even as the unknown scares us. We are afraid things will never change even though we know things always change! To master our fear, we tell stories and make explanations. However, it can be more skillful to let go of knowing. Freedom comes with surrender to the unknown.
Martin Buber teaches, “the world is not comprehensible but it is embraceable.” We do not always need to know how things will turn out, instead we can focus on how we respond in the moment. We can only feel the Divine when we are truly present. God does not appear when we are worrying about the future, God is manifest in moments when we inhabit the here and now.
Sometimes we cannot summon tools to sit with the unknown, move into the mystery, or connect with gratitude. Sometimes, we are lost in a downward spiral. If we are able to reach out to our friends, teachers, colleagues, and fellow seekers in these moments, they remind us that this is only temporary. We have had other challenging moments and will again. They remind us that while the darkness may feel stifling or terrifying, it will shift. They reassure us that they have been there too; moments of unknown darkness are part of the experience of being human.
We may draw solace in the thought that the Divine weeps with us too sometimes. God is present in our tears and fear. With this consolation, we are no longer alone. Here we find peace in the unknown.
The Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, claimed that the destiny of the Jewish people lies precisely in our openness to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed. The constant quest is openness to the Mystery. Openness to the unknown. And we can choose for it to be terrifying and miserable. Or we can use it as an invitation to feel God’s presence—from gratitude, remaining present, and communal support.
There will probably be many more times when I will holler at the stick figure on my bathroom vanity. In these times, my thoughts will be projecting all sorts of terrible possibilities in the future, or that a particular situation feels intolerable. Instead, may these moments open us to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed– with patience, with acceptance, and with wonder.
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall joyously serves Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington.