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Confidence in Times of Peril

What does it mean to have the courage to carry on, to act decisively even in the face of deep uncertainty and unknowable risks? This is, of course, hardly an academic question even in the best of times, and today’s environment of mass-hysteria is not the best of times.

Nevertheless, uncertainty and doubt are the bane of human existence. They are the reasons people do not take risks in love and in capitalism. They stop us from growing into what we are capable of becoming. And so belief systems are “sold” in part because they help people cope with – or merely accept – the fears and risks that otherwise can paralyze any thinking person.

There is, of course, more than enough unknowns to paralyze anyone’s decision-making processes even in everyday life (again, magnified by the current Virus mania). What is crazy about Judaism is that the Torah does not merely offer a coping mechanism: the text actually requires uncertainty, forcibly putting us into a place where we are not sure where our next meal is coming from.

Every seven years we are forbidden from planting or harvesting from the land, and the Jubilee forces bulk property reversions. The Torah tells us explicitly that we have no choice: follow the law and trust that G-d will take care of us.

Why?

I think the Torah first makes us insecure, and then actively gives us a means of coping with that very same insecurity. Here is how:

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; The land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. (Lev: 25:18-19)

The word “security” is not – actually – security. If you look at a range of translations, the word is usually translated as “security” or “safety.” But it is not used that way in the Torah, so to translate it this way is erroneous. The Torah is self-referential for language: we look at how words are used elsewhere in the text to understand what they mean.

How is the word normally translated as “security” (in the Hebrew, “betach”) used? Incredibly, the word “betach” is only found in the Torah one place earlier than this Leviticus usage: when Shimon and Levi go out with swords to kill all the men in Shechem, recapturing their sister from the prince who had taken her. (See Genesis 34:25).

Shimon and Levi were just two men taking on a city. They had a weakened opponent (who had all been circumcised three days before), and they had the element of surprise on their side.

 And it came to pass … that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each his sword, and came in against the city “betach,” and slayed every male. (Gen. 34:25)

But without the benefit of hindsight, they had no way to know that they would emerge victorious and unharmed. Indeed, two men against an entire city probably looked to them very much like a suicide mission, or at the very least a plan with quite long odds.

But they went ahead anyway. But to do it, they knew they had to eliminate self-doubt, because any second-guessing in combat when outnumbered is sure to be fatal. That is why they were “betach” – they squashed whatever doubts a reasonable person would have in that situation, and they did what they felt was right.

(Note, of course, that their brothers and father did not participate, and their father was furious after the fact – though notably not because killing a city of men might have been wrong, but because it might add to the family’s list of enemies. Jacob’s objection was pragmatic, not moral. It was Shimon and Levi who showed confidence in the face of this risk.)

It seems to me that the Torah, by using the same word to describe existence during the fallow and jubilee years, is endorsing Shimon and Levi’s state of mind, and quite possibly the act itself: the decision to confidently and fearlessly proceed, even in the face of deep uncertainty and insecurity is something that the Torah clearly considers to be an extremely valuable trait, something so important that later in the Torah every single person is commanded to try, in the face of food insecurity, to achieve that very same state of mind.

Judaism is not big on digging deep into the soul, enquiring on deep beliefs or faith. Instead, the Torah cares a great deal about what people actually do – their words and deeds. We have few words in Torah for belief, but even in Modern Hebrew we use the same root word as “betach” – bitachon is “havng faith.” It is a belief that somehow things are going to work out for the best, even if we cannot see how. And because we can muster that belief, we can move out of the paralysis that strikes people when they are overwhelmed by the fact that they cannot predict the future.

We seek to have that same confidence. Abolish self-doubt. Do what is best, secure that somehow it must work out.

Another iWe and @Susanquinn production!

Comments are welcome!