Embracing the Unknowable

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Alex Kress

As a kid, I loved how math made the world orderly. It was neat and predictable: Two plus two always equaled four; the answer was never in question. Yet, as I got older and math continued to get more and more complicated, I became increasingly fascinated by the human experiences that numbers and equations alone could not capture.

Fact remained important, but what about truth? What about the subjective realities of our lives, like love and hurt, that can be comprehended only in the abstract? We can count and categorize people in large swaths, but how can we understand their individuality? To be human means to live with both sides of the coin: the curious pursuit of the knowable and the humble recognition of the unknowable forces of the universe.

The Book of Numbers opens with the knowable: a clean mathematical survey of the Israelites in the wilderness. The first half of this Torah portion counts each tribe's battle-ready men – 603,500 in all – and meticulously records their placement around the Tent of Meeting. The second half of the portion moves from human concerns to Divine service. The Levites' responsibilities in officiating religious rites and maintaining the mishkan,MishkanThe portable tabernacle.  the sacred dwelling place of God in the Israelite camp are spelled out. In these distinct sections, we find the two sides of the coin: what is in human hands and what remains out of our control. Though we can organize ourselves in preparation for the wilderness, we will never truly know what lies ahead.

As the pandemic spread across the world in early 2020, cancer spread through my body. As the son of medical professionals, I eagerly followed the knowable medical science, undergoing two surgeries at recommendation of my doctors. But when you experience a life-threatening illness, you realize that the doctors, like the patient, must also embrace the unknowable.

When the biopsy results came back, I received a call with good news: "We didn't find any viable cancer. Your immune system killed it all. We've never really seen anything like it. We might want to write up your case for a medical journal." Jokingly, I said, "Let me know when you've got it. I'll add the theological perspective." The reply surprised me: "Honestly, rabbi, the theological perspective makes as much sense as the biological one."

We crave reason and predictability, but certainty is often elusive and we must embrace the unknowable. My cancer didn't happen for a reason, nor did my cure. No one was to blame, neither human nor Divine. What kept me grounded throughout my treatment was my embrace of a belief articulated by the theologian Judith Plaskow in “Two Feminist Views of Goddess and God” (Tikkun, Jan. 16, 2015):

"God is inclusive of good and evil, the power of creativity that undergirds all life processes; this God is not personal or solely good, but rather is the power undergirding everything"

This approach to faith, in which God is not beyond the world but immanent in it, helps us to recognize that rationality and spirituality are not only compatible but dependent on one another.

When we apply this theological understanding to our lives, we develop a spiritual resilience that carries us through the wilderness of the unknown. In the unpredictable ebb and flow of life, this type of malleable faith heightens our highest highs, softens our lowest lows, and keeps us grounded throughout. It allows for a dynamic theology that meets us – the family member, professional, Jew, friend, citizen – where we are, with the potential to change and evolve as we assume different roles throughout our lives. 

Hidden in the census report that begins Parashat B'midbar is a reminder that survival depends on a mysterious interplay of fact and faith. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that in the census, twice as many of the children have the name of God in their names as do their parents (The Steinsaltz Humash: Humash Translation and Commentary, Jerusalem Ltd., 2018, p. 730). Even though the parents were born into the desperate conditions of Egyptian servitude, they gave their children names like Nethanel, “God has given,” in the belief that this will endow their children with spiritual resilience and that reliance on the rational alone will not sustain them in the wilderness.

Each of us faces a wilderness, an unknown future with unexpected twists and turns, in which rational decisions may guide us but faith has the power to sustain us. The question is: Will we let it?