The Value of Uncertainty

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The stock market hates uncertainty. This helps explain the wild gyrations of the markets, unable to “decide” whether we are headed for a double-dip recession or whether the trillions in corporate profits are a reflection of the good times ahead. Is it the millions of North Americans looking for work or standing in line to buy the latest iPhone that are the true indicator of our collective economic shape? The fact that the news of both groups is true just adds to the confusion. Spending decisions, business investment and hiring are to a large extent dependent on confidence in the future. Fears about the future, even if unwarranted, can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why consumer confidence is so important; strangely, perhaps even more important than actual economic data. As in politics, marketing, and so much else, perception is reality and the future will be greatly influenced by our perception of today, even if it is somewhat divorced from reality.

While economic uncertainty may be unnerving, even scarier is the uncertainty of life in general. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who shall live and who shall die”. As much as we may not like it, in life there are no guarantees. Markets may not like uncertainty, but from a moral point of view, there is much value in such uncertainty. It is not by chance that the land of Israel has few natural resources; it is much more dependent on rainfall than, say, Canada is for its sustenance. This is no unfortunate geographical coincidence; rather, it was a way to strengthen the link between the Jewish people and G-d.

The Jewish people could rely on their geographical fortune if they were to be materially successful. They would have to use their ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness to create a flourishing society, fulfilling the biblical mandate to be a “wise and understanding nation” and a “light unto the nations”. The lack of resources is meant to foster our recognition that it is G-d who controls nature and is our greatest “resource”. Being dependent on G-d for our sustenance should instill within us the need to follow His will. While it cannot be scientifically proven, a person of faith understands the crucial link between our actions and the course of events. The uncertainly over our future success is thus meant to foster our moral growth.

Paradoxically, both the greatest certainty and the greatest uncertainty is that of death. While we all know we are going to die, we are uncertain as to when; and that combination should be a great motivator. Those who, G-d forbid, receive a “medical death sentence” live much differently; they generally focus on the “important” things in life. It is this idea that is behind the astounding rabbinic comment that interprets the verse “and G-d saw all that He created and it was very good” as referring to death. Death may mark the end of our physical existence, but that realization is morally necessary, and can lead to “very good”. Our tradition teaches that tzedakah annuls the evil decree. There is no greater way to prepare for the New Year than by using our blessings to help others.