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Embracing Insecurity

 

Rational people love to make sure that we have good, secure and predictable lives. We want to have good pensions, to eliminate surprises, and especially downside risks.

The problem with our instinct to seek and secure security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. Death comes to us all: we cannot avoid it. More than this, the purpose of life is not merely to live, but to make our lives meaningful, to improve ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. So we must grow, or we have wasted the only opportunity we have to really live.

Our language is full of similar truisms: “Needs, must”; “Necessity is the mother of invention”; “No pain, no gain.”

These are all fine in a vacuum, but they miss a key element: it is through relationships that we grow. The best teachers are not institutions, but people. The best marriages involve two different people who never stop investing in each other. And the best religions are those that require us to think about G-d wants from us, how we can grow and change to be better partners with the Creator in this all-important journey.

Relationships, however, are hard. They require soul searching, being subjected to criticisms that cut deep, being willing to consider and even embrace profoundly challenging changes. Relationships are so intimidating that many people give up on even trying to have deep relationships with other people, choosing their cats or dogs or even their cars or interior décor instead.

And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow. The illusion of self-sufficiency (and security) is a major impediment to personal growth. We only reach out to others when we are not self-sufficient, when we are scared enough by the alternative that we have no choice but to hold hands and walk off that cliff. Without insecurity, we do not take the risks needed to initiate, sustain and grow relationships.

Our desire for permanence in a constantly-shifting world is understandable, but it is anathema for personal development. Ultimately, the world is not improved through huge buildings, or great institutions or enormous bureaucracies. Those things can all be useful implements for sustaining a way of life, but they are often impediments for personal or public growth. Static civilizations are dying civilizations, though that decline and death can happen so slowly that we miss it unless we look for large historical arcs – the decline of Greek intellectual civilization, or the extended quagmire of the Roman Empire. In the more modern world, we can see how government bureaucracies today, from public schools to the EPA, go from dynamic and proactive collections of earnest well-meaning people to hide-bound institutions that only exist for the purpose of perpetuating themselves.

In the Torah, the Jewish people complain that Moses, “that man,” went up on the mountain, and they cannot handle the insecurity of not knowing what happened, or how to secure their future. They crave a permanent physical manifestation, something beautiful and great, something that, unlike leaders, is not capable of wandering off and disappearing from their lives. They want a leader who cannot die.

And so they make the golden calf and worship it. And they are so very happy with the creation that they celebrate the calf. It is comforting that they now have a manifestation of a G-d. Golden calves, like nature, are much easier to understand than a G-d who has no physical manifestation. In the Calf, the people have found their permanence.

What they did not know is that Moses, at the same time, was receiving precisely what the people said they wanted – the permanent tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed by G-d Himself. It was the ultimate symbol of an unchanging compact, a divine and eternal gift that would change the relationship between G-d and man for all time.

What happens? When Moses sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets. He eliminates the very idea of a static relationship, of a symbol that can pass from generation to generation venerated by each in turn. Moses makes it clear that the only way for Jews to exist in this world is if we stop trying to create a false sense of security, but instead embrace lives of insecurity, of uncertainty. Lives in which we are incentivized to grow and improve and make something of ourselves.

The Torah is full of similar commandments and reminders: we are forbidden from the “safe” way to make money, by charging interest. Loving others, and especially strangers, are commandments to force us to stay outside of our comfort zone. The commandment to live in Israel is itself to force us to “look up” for our sustenance, as Israel lacks the dependable “clockwork” agriculture of Egypt. So personal and national growth are baked into the cake and irrevocably tied to perpetuating insecurity.

Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The tabernacle became the temple, and then Jews started building it bigger and bigger – even though the core components and features were the same ones that could be carried by hand and traveled through the wilderness. Did the Temple really need to be grand, or was it just a concession to misplaced human priorities? I suggest that making the Temple enormous and impressive was actually similar to the sin of the Golden Calf, and for the same reasons.

On the other hand, the Torah itself, as well as the corpus of Jewish Law, the Talmud and the commentaries over the millennia, are testaments to insecurity. Judaism is not a “paint by numbers” religion; it requires investment and involvement by each generation, parsing and arguing at every step of the way.

If we are insecure enough so that we are forced to invest deeply in relationships with other people and with G-d, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.

There are 22 comments.

  1. Member

    Absolutely brilliant essay. All three of my kids will read this today, and we’ll discuss it at supper. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this.

    • #1
    • March 11, 2018 at 7:16 am
    • 9 likes
  2. Coolidge

    We Christians say “Give us this day our daily bread…”

    We want to get our weekly bread, or our bi-weekly bread, or our once a month bread, to hold us over. My experience is that it rarely works that way.

    Store up your treasures in heaven…

    • #2
    • March 11, 2018 at 7:20 am
    • 9 likes
  3. Contributor

    I love this, iWe. It could be my mantra–well, I guess we don’t necessarily have mantras in Judaism. Dealing with the paradox of planning one’s life and yet knowing that every day, every moment is uncertain has been one of the hardest goals for me. But the more I try, the more I am able to live that. Thanks for reminding me.

    • #3
    • March 11, 2018 at 7:36 am
    • 5 likes
  4. Member

    iWe: The problem with our instinct to seek and secure security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. … And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow.

    In a much different context from your greater piece, you reminded me of the following passage based on the personal experiences of “the uprooted man” from recent readings near the end of Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

    …I have known both the benefits and the oppressive hardships of the uprooted man. Upheaval broadens his perception of the world and his knowledge of men; it blows away his foggy conformities and stifling particularisms; it saves him from the patriotic complacency which really is no more than humdrum self-satisfaction; but, in the struggle for existence, it remains a most serious handicap. – Page 438

    Wonderful Sunday morning reading. Thanks for this.

    • #4
    • March 11, 2018 at 7:43 am
    • 6 likes
  5. Coolidge

    Finally you, iWe, have written something that I can (for the most part) understand.

    So proud of me today!

    • #5
    • March 11, 2018 at 7:49 am
    • 11 likes
  6. Member

    Thank you very much for this post…it has helped put some personal issues in perspective.

    • #6
    • March 11, 2018 at 8:05 am
    • 6 likes
  7. Reagan
    iWe Post author

    Thank you all for the incredibly kind words!

    • #7
    • March 11, 2018 at 8:11 am
    • 11 likes
  8. Moderator
    She

    You’ve done it again! Just yesterday, on the way to looking up something else, I came across one of my favorite iWe posts, and I’m adding this one to the list.

    • #8
    • March 11, 2018 at 8:27 am
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    An essay that challenges me to be better. Thank you.

    • #9
    • March 11, 2018 at 9:26 am
    • 5 likes
  10. Thatcher

    Wisdom, as ever…The Scriptures are, at times, shaped like a parachute guiding us – ultimately – into the arms of the Ineffable. Or, life as a high-wire act, trusting in the arms of the Catcher…Not easy, but interesting. Thanks for the holy reminder! Shalom!

    • #10
    • March 11, 2018 at 10:40 am
    • 3 likes
  11. Member

    iWe: When Moses sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets.

    I had followed this article so I could read it later. I thought it was going to be about the conservative desire for the security of big, metal and glass boxes on wheels on the road. But it was even better.

    Is that interpretation of the episode about the destruction of the stone tablets original with you? I’m curious about how you came to read it that way. Surely there must be a life story or two that led people to realize that’s what was happening.

    • #11
    • March 12, 2018 at 7:36 am
    • 3 likes
  12. Reagan
    iWe Post author

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Is that interpretation of the episode about the destruction of the stone tablets original with you? I’m curious about how you came to read it that way.

    I heard it from my Rabbi. As far as I know, it is original with him, but it is highly consistent with the text. Minutes before I heard this interpretation from him, I was puzzling over why Moses is reinforced as “that man.”

    • #12
    • March 12, 2018 at 1:55 pm
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    Spin (View Comment):
    We Christians say “Give us this day our daily bread…”

    We want to get our weekly bread, or our bi-weekly bread, or our once a month bread, to hold us over. My experience is that it rarely works that way.

    Store up your treasures in heaven…

    Same sort of thing with the manna in the wilderness.

    • #13
    • March 12, 2018 at 3:41 pm
    • 4 likes
  14. Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Spin (View Comment):
    We Christians say “Give us this day our daily bread…”

    We want to get our weekly bread, or our bi-weekly bread, or our once a month bread, to hold us over. My experience is that it rarely works that way.

    Store up your treasures in heaven…

    Same sort of thing with the manna in the wilderness.

    I think that is where “give us this day our daily bread” came from. Christ was preaching the “Sermon on the Mount” and he was speaking to Jews who would readily understand (I think) a reference to the manna in the wilderness.

    • #14
    • March 12, 2018 at 4:02 pm
    • 5 likes
  15. Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Is that interpretation of the episode about the destruction of the stone tablets original with you? I’m curious about how you came to read it that way.

    I heard it from my Rabbi. As far as I know, it is original with him, but it is highly consistent with the text. Minutes before I heard this interpretation from him, I was puzzling over why Moses is reinforced as “that man.”

    Thanks. I’ve got to go read that again. It has been awhile.

    • #15
    • March 12, 2018 at 4:45 pm
    • 3 likes
  16. Member

    That is precisely the reason that the Amish avoid the conveniences of the World. They wish their people to turn to family and their fellow Amish when they need help rather than the machinery which separates a person from his neighbor.

    Your thoughts, iWe, remind me of my Father’s favorite hymn:

    “Lord, for tomorrow and it’s needs, I do not pray;

    keep me, My G-d, from stain of sin, just for today.

    Let me both diligently work, and duly pray;

    let me be kind in word and deed, just for today.

    Let me no wrong nor idle word unthinking say;

    set though a seal upon my lips, just for today.

    And if today my tide of life should ebb away,

    give me thy sacraments divine, sweet Lord, today.

    So, for tomorrow and it’s needs I do not pray;

    but, keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.

    • #16
    • March 12, 2018 at 6:46 pm
    • 5 likes
  17. Inactive

    doulalady (View Comment):
    That is precisely the reason that the Amish avoid the conveniences of the World. They wish their people to turn to family and their fellow Amish when they need help rather than the machinery which separates a person from his neighbor.

    Your thoughts, iWe, remind me of my Father’s favorite hymn:

    “Lord, for tomorrow and it’s needs, I do not pray;

    keep me, My G-d, from stain of sin, just for today.

    Let me both diligently work, and duly pray;

    let me be kind in word and deed, just for today.

    Let me no wrong nor idle word unthinking say;

    set though a seal upon my lips, just for today.

    And if today my tide of life should ebb away,

    give me thy sacraments divine, sweet Lord, today.

    So, for tomorrow and it’s needs I do not pray;

    but, keep me, guide me, love me, Lord, just for today.

    Wow! That’s so beautiful. Thanks.

    • #17
    • March 14, 2018 at 1:17 pm
    • 1 like
  18. Inactive

    Here’s the thing: stability is needed for growth. Many traditions tell of putting a fence around a sapling so it can be secure and then grow big enough to tie an elephant to.

    With that understanding, I think complacency is the problem not the desire for security and stability.

    I have more but I’d like to hear that this is correct and, if not, how to resolve what I’m saying with what the OP is saying.

    • #18
    • March 14, 2018 at 1:24 pm
    • 1 like
  19. Contributor

    Larry Koler (View Comment):
    With that understanding, I think complacency is the problem not the desire for security and stability.

    I have more but I’d like to hear that this is correct and, if not, how to resolve what I’m saying with what the OP is saying.

    May I weigh in, @larrykoler? I think you’re on to something (and have no idea what @iwe will say) but I don’t think it was always true. In a society where so many have so much, I think that complacency has emerged as a factor, but taking care of that need is not as fundamental as security and stability. Think of our parents: complacency was probably not a factor at all; survival was. But now, most of us get our basic needs met; the scary part, with all the recent economic and political insecurity, is that we may see basic needs rise again, pushing down the complacent attitude. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    • #19
    • March 14, 2018 at 1:31 pm
    • 2 likes
  20. Member

    Larry Koler (View Comment):
    Here’s the thing: stability is needed for growth. Many traditions tell of putting a fence around a sapling so it can be secure and then grow big enough to tie an elephant to.

    With that understanding, I think complacency is the problem not the desire for security and stability.

    I have more but I’d like to hear that this is correct and, if not, how to resolve what I’m saying with what the OP is saying.

    By naming the sapling. Here’s one strategy:

    It’s our commitment to the Word of G-d. Let that grow long enough, and I welcome all the elephants of Gonarezhou to trample through the garden.

    • #20
    • March 14, 2018 at 4:18 pm
    • 3 likes
  21. Member

    @larrykoler, It is now known that a sapling will not grow strong if it is over-supported. Nowadays saplings are staked in such a way that they can flex in the wind, so that they will grow strongly both in root and stem.

    • #21
    • March 14, 2018 at 4:38 pm
    • 3 likes
  22. Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    It’s our commitment to the Word of G-d. Let that grow long enough, and I welcome all the elephants of Gonarezhou to trample through the garden.

    I’ve been there. I don’t remember very many elephants, actually.

    Hwange and Victoria Falls–I remember so many elephants.

    • #22
    • March 14, 2018 at 7:51 pm
    • 3 likes