The dangers waiting beyond a doubt


By Rabbi Uri Topolosky

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, Exodus 25:1–27:19.

I recently visited Sutherland Springs, Texas, where, in early November, a gunman opened fire through a church exterior wall — then entered a side door to finish the job, killing 25 worshippers, including a pregnant woman and eight young children, and injuring 20 others.

I met there Scott Holcombe, who slowly walked me around to the chairs set up for his father, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and five nieces and nephews. As we embraced, he whispered through tears, “I am the one that first found this church and brought my family here.” (Holcombe had not been in church that day.) “They were here because of me…” he said, trailing off into a pained silence.

The man who took the lives of Holcombe’s family entered the church in terrifying certainty. Whether this was the result of untreated mental health issues, an altered state of mind, or simply blind hate, the horror became manifest in a moment where one man knew beyond any doubt that he was to be an instrument of mass murder.

This is perhaps one reason why, in our tradition, certainty has such an uncertain place.

In Parshat Terumah, the children of Israel are given instructions to build a mishkan — a roaming temple, that is decidedly an uncertain sacred home. It is designed to be dismantled and carried from place to place on a moment’s notice. The mishkan communicates a subtle message to the people that they cannot always know the place or message of the Divine at any given time. Instead, they will have to embrace a faith without certainty.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (19th century), teaches that even the revelation at Mount Sinai was a bit uncertain — for good reason. He notes that the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God,” begins with the Hebrew word “Anochi”, instead of the simpler “Ani” to mean “I.” The difference between the two words, is the letter kaf, a prefix meaning, “similar to,” but not, perhaps, it itself.

His teaching is recorded as follows:

“The text does not say ‘Ani,’ for if it had done so, it would have suggested that the Holy One Blessed Be He revealed all of His light to Israel, in its fullness, and that thereafter they would not have been able to go deeper in His words, for He had already revealed everything.

“Thus the kaf [separating ani from anochi] teaches that it was not in its fullness, but rather an image, a likeness, of the light that God will reveal in the future. And all that a man will grasp in going deeper in the words of Torah will show that, until this point, he was in darkness.”

Both Sinai and the mishkan serve as paradigms for a spiritual approach that eschews certainty, and acknowledges that life is filled with mystery. The revelation of One God also means that there is only One all-knowing source of information. The rest of us are invited to humbly accept that the truths we know, cannot be for certain the totality of what can be known. Embracing this little bit of doubt may in fact be the Torah’s antidote to extremism.

Uri Topolosky is the rabbi of Kehilat Pardes — The Rock Creek Synagogue, formerly known as the Beth Joshua Congregation of Aspen Hill. He also serves as Rav Hakehillah of the Berman Hebrew Academy. 

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