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We can handle uncertainty

The Jewish approach is never to hide under the blankets and hope that difficult and uncertain times pass, writes Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum

    (tomertu/ iStock / Getty Images Plus)

    Uncertainty is once again the political buzz word of the year. An election memorably designed to provide stability and certainty ended up providing the opposite. Many thought that the 2010 Coalition Government was just a blip in the recent history of stable politics in the UK. Some even thought that the EU referendum result would eventually sort itself out, and all would return to how it once was. Few now believe that we are likely to see this again any time soon.

    Strangely, there are some people who thrive on uncertainty. The bookies love an unpredictable situation, for example. But what about those of us who depend upon certainty and like things to be stable in life? How do we cope with a potential period of prolonged political uncertainty?

    One option is to keep our heads down and hope that eventually the certainty we crave returns. But, from a Jewish perspective, I don’t think that does the trick.

    As Jews, we are the ultimate realists. We constantly dream of a future messianic utopia. But we have always been acutely aware of the fact that we are where we are in life and we must deal with it.

    In fact, Jews have such a famous reputation as realists, that some of the best Jewish humour has often mined the vein of us being both too realistic and too practical. “If things are this bad”, so the saying goes, “are they really going to get that good?!”

    That being the case, let’s assume that political uncertainty is here to stay for the foreseeable future. And, if so, what does Jewish tradition teach us about coping with uncertainty in life? Of course, this question is a critical one, not just in the context of the current political climate, but in life generally. Uncertainty is one the most consistently cited triggers of mental health stress worldwide.

    For me, there is a talmudic story which stands out as a powerful, motivational model in how to deal with an uncertain future.

    The year is 70 CE. Jerusalem is under the intense final stages of the catastrophic Roman siege that will see the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem reduced to rubble, and its people massacred by the sword.

    But, on one dark night during that siege, an incredibly brave and daring rescue operation gets under way.

    The students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, one of the leading rabbinic sages of Jerusalem, concoct a terribly risky plan. They decide to publicly announce that their beloved rabbi has died. Then, they will place him in a coffin and request permission to carry him to the burial ground outside the city.

    The Roman authorities, to their astonishment, agree. Once inside the Roman camp, they open the coffin outside the tent of Vespasian, the Roman general, who to his utter amazement finds himself standing face to face with a very alive Jewish leader.

    Rabbi Yochanan, thinking quickly, praises the general and predicts that one day he will become Caesar himself. And just at that moment, a messenger arrives from Rome to inform him that the Senate has indeed decided that he will be the next ruler.

    Capitalising on his moment of grace in Vespasian’s eyes, Rabbi Yochanan then requests something which in one sentence ensures the survival of Judaism. “Give me the town of Yavneh and its Sages,” he asks.

    Jerusalem, tragically, was gone. In a short time, both it and the Temple would go up in flames. But, because of that request, the Jewish people and the Torah would survive, through the rabbinic scholars who would continue teaching the people in the town of Yavneh, many miles from Jerusalem.

    The Jewish approach is never to hide under the blankets and hope that difficult and uncertain times pass. Rather we take matters into our own hands. To save what can be saved, to improve what can be improved in this difficult world. Jewish people have always believed that if we wait for a miracle to resolve the uncertainties of life, we might end up waiting forever. If Jerusalem cannot be saved, Jews, like Rabbi Yochanan of old, have requested Yavneh and its Sages.

    We cannot resolve the current political uncertainty ourselves, and it may indeed continue for the foreseeable future. But what we can do, to paraphrase the words of legendary Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, is to choose our response to it. And, in that response, lies the opportunity for both our own growth as well as our ultimate personal freedom from the uncertainties we face.

    Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community

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