Ambiguity

Ambiguity – Rosh Hashanah 5765 (2004)

Late one Friday afternoon, little Isaac ran into the living room, his eyes bulging with excitement. “The chicken is ready to eat!” His Zayde caught him up in his arms, swung him around and around, and sniffed the air. Nothing.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I am, of course! Bubbe said so! Hurry up!”

“Well, if Bubbe said so, it must be true! But…” Zayde sniffed the air again, searching for the familiar aromas of baking chicken, pepper and paprika, onions in the frying pan, carrots glazing. Everything that announced that Shabbat was about to begin. He nodded softly: they were there, but faint, like clouds on the far horizon. And the sun was nowhere near ready to set, even though the shadows were starting to lengthen.

He looked at the young boy again, searching for a glimmer of the mischief that so often peeked out from his bright eyes. Again, nothing. “But, it’s not yet time for Shabbat!” he challenged one last time, “How can this be?”

“I don’t know. Bubbe said the chicken is ready to eat. C’mon, Zayde!” And he squirmed out of his grandpa’s arms and ran out to the large kitchen, its windows overlooking the barnyard.

Zayde made like a stiff old Golem and lumbered out in pursuit, growling, “Where’s my chicken? I want my chicken!”

The floor boards creaked beneath him as he crossed the threshold. Suddenly the screen door slammed shut behind Bubbe, who came in and headed for the stove, carrying freshly-picked vegetables in her apron. “It’s going to rain,” she sighed. “Better make sure the windows are closed in the guest room, so Isaac’s bed doesn’t get all wet!” At that very moment young Isaac raced to the door and pointed at the chicken, who was pecking at its cornmeal in the dust.

“See Zayde, she’s eating! I told you she was ready to eat!”

Poor Zayde. He was caught, not by the mischief of his rambunctious grandchild, but by a simple ambiguity. The chicken was indeed ready to eat. But it was not ready to be eaten.

Zayde laughed, and caught little Isaac up in a swirling hug. “You tricked me! And you didn’t even mean to! Such a clever boy!” His whole face smiling, Zayde sat down at the table and patted his lap. “Come here, my little mazik, and I’ll tell you a story about Rebekah and the trick that God played on her!”

Bubbe rolled her eyes, and pulled three onions from the cupboard for the kugel. As she began chopping them, their sharp smell filled the air, and Isaac settled in his Grandpa’s lap for another tale from the Torah.

* * *

Now, before I continue with the story, there’s something you should know about ambiguity. There are two kinds of ambiguity, really: the first is the kind that caught Zayde unawares. In that case, there were two ways that little Isaac’s statement could have been understood, only one of which was correct. Either the chicken was ready to begin its dinner, or it was ready to be dinner. Zayde just happened to pick the wrong one.

The other kind of ambiguity is when there are two ways to understand something, usually contradictory, and both of them are correct. In English we get the nagging sense that only one of them was the intended meaning.

But in Biblical Hebrew, it’s different. Biblical Hebrew is a language with very few words and only two tenses. It achieves its great richness in meaning through the use of metaphor, but even more through the use of a grammar that is fundamentally ambiguous. Let’s listen in on Zayde’s story:

* * *

“A long, long time ago,” Zayde began, “Rebekah was carrying twins around inside her, and they were having a battle in her tummy! Do you remember their names?”

“Yes, Zayde,” Isaac answered, glad he knew. Zayde’s stories always made him work – but they were still fun. “Jacob and… Esau!”

“That’s right!” Zayde kissed his forehead and continued. “Jacob and Esau. They were having such a big battle that poor Rebekah thought she was going to explode. So she did what we always do when things are going wrong and it’s not our fault –”

“She complained to God!”

Bubbe laughed and interrupted. “No, she prayed to God, little Isaac.”

Zayde winked his secret wink that wasn’t a secret to anyone and said, “Well, let’s just say she had a talk with God. She said, ‘If it’s like this, why do I exist?’ And God did a very special thing. He gave her a riddle!”

“God gave her a riddle?” Isaac asked. “What was it?”

“God said, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be dispensed from your insides. One will be mightier than the other, v’rav va-avod tza-ir.’

* * *

Let me take a moment to explain.

Rabbi Richard Friedman points out that the last phrase can be understood in two equally correct but contradictory ways: either as “the elder will serve the younger,” or “the younger will serve the elder.” You see, in Biblical Hebrew it is sometimes impossible to tell which word is the subject and which is the object.

Most people get stuck trying to figure out which meaning God intended. Which one is correct? Is Esau to serve Jacob, or is Jacob to serve Esau?

The answer comes only when we allow ourselves to move beyond the question of which option is right.

What we must do is take the phrase literally, at its deepest level of meaning: namely, God spoke ambiguously to Rebekah. God’s message to her was:

“v’rav va-avod tza-ir – One of your sons will serve the other, and I’m not going to tell you which.”

This ambiguity runs rampant throughout Biblical Hebrew, and therefore throughout our theology. It forces us to view the world from an entirely different perspective, albeit a difficult one. It forces us to realize that we live in a world in which opposites can be true at the same time.

Confusing? You bet. Esoteric? Not in the least.

The same kind of fundamental ambiguity that we find in Biblical Hebrew sits at the cornerstones of our universe; it allows certain interesting things to happen, like lasers and computers. It’s well worth our while to try and understand this aspect of the universe. More worthwhile than you might imagine.

But let’s get back to the farmhouse. I’m afraid I’ve taken so much time explaining the riddle that they’ve already had their Shabbat dinner and put little Isaac to bed.

* * *

As Bubbe had foretold, the rain came, and when Isaac’s grandparents had tucked him in for the night it was playing a soothing melody on the window of the guest room. He slipped into a happy sleep, surrounded by the rich smells of their house: Shabbat dinner, candles that burned themselves out in the sink, and the indefinable but unmistakable aromas of Bubbe and Zayde. It was such a treat to be able to spend the weekend with them!

Later on, long after everyone fell asleep, the storm turned angry. The wind howled, the rain pelted against the window, and tree limbs scraped the roof, sounding more like angry animals trying to get inside than simple branches and leaves.

Suddenly, a particularly strong gust of wind broke a shutter free and it banged hard against the window. Isaac cried out and ran into his grandparents’ bedroom, leaping up onto their bed. Bubbe gathered him up into a big hug, and Zayde chuckled.

“It’s just the wind, Isaac. Just a storm. Not even close to the dark, scary way things were at the beginning of time!”

“Now Benjamin…” his wife began, but it was too late.

“Really? A worse storm than this?” Isaac tried to snuggle closer to his grandmother, but his eyes peered out, brimming with curiosity.

“Oh, it was much worse at the Beginning,” Zayde began, as Bubbe sighed and leaned back into the big feather pillow. “It was all dark, and swirling, and there wasn’t any up or down – just a huge mess. What the Torah calls tohu va-vohu: chaos. A great wind was blowing, which was really God’s spirit, back and forth over everything, stirring it up like a big whirlwind. And it seemed like nothing would ever change – it would just be dark and scary and thick, until you know what happened?”

It was, of course, at that very moment that a huge thunderbolt cracked right outside the house. All three of them yelled and leapt up, the hair on their arms standing straight up from the electricity that filled the air. The image of everything in the room was burned into their vision, so that even when it went pitch black a moment later, they still could see everything exactly as it had been.

Zayde laughed first, then Bubbe, and finally Isaac joined in. “Exactly! God said y’hi or! Let there be light! Va y’hi or! And there was light!”

* * *

OK, so forgive me the schmaltz. But there is of course a great parallel between the Big Bang and the Biblical account of creation. Both stories start with a universe that is unknown, and in both the universe erupts into existence with a flash of light.

The scientific story is worth a little bit of explanation. Here’s how it goes.

In the early 20th century, Heisenberg proposed his uncertainty principle. This principle addresses the fact that two opposites can be and often are true at the same time. Physicists call this “superposition:” something being in two different states at once.

Heisenberg recognized that things are in these opposing states until we observe them. For example, light behaves as both a wave and a particle, until and unless we experience it. It’s not that its nature is unknown, it’s that its nature is fundamentally ambiguous. It is both a wave and a particle at the same time. And it’s because of this quality of light that we are able to build lasers.

This is the world our God created. A world in which things can be both true and not true at the same time. The structure of our universe is based on fundamental ambiguity.

Einstein didn’t like this idea. He announced, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” He really was disturbed by the notion that things weren’t absolutely knowable, that the universe didn’t proceed in an orderly fashion from point A to point B. Of course, if the universe did do that, we would find ourselves without free will. For if complete knowledge of the present leads us to complete knowledge of the future, then everything is completely determined. And if everything is determined, there is no free will.

The Rabbis struggled with this dilemma too. They said: “All is foreseen, but free choice is given.” “All is foreseen, but free choice is given.” Both things, opposing and contradictory, are true at the same time. A typically Jewish bit of theology.

Now, while it is nice to know that physics and the Torah coincide in this way, there is more to this overlap that is critical. Remember: so long as something is unobserved, it can exist in a state where contradictions and ambiguities reign – tohu va-vohu. When we take action, when we observe it or interact in any other way with it, we collapse that fundamental ambiguity into a single state. In short, we determine what actually is. We create.

We take that piece of the universe in which we live and, by shedding the light of our presence upon it, change it from formless and void to knowable and known, however imperfectly.

Hang on, I think I hear Isaac.

* * *

The next morning, Isaac was the first one downstairs. Through the windows, he could see the trees were still hanging heavy from the storm the night before, dripping water onto the ground below. He headed into the kitchen, and was about to step out into the barnyard to feed the chickens, when he caught sight of a dark shape at the doorstep, a bundle of rags.

He opened the door carefully, pressing against the mound, and it moved, then moaned. “Zayde!” Isaac screamed, running into the parlor and over to the stairs. “Zayde! There’s something outside the door!”

His grandparents came streaming down, tucking their robes around them, alarmed by the fear in his voice. Bubbe picked little Isaac up, who pointed at the pile of rags at the door, a hand reaching upwards out of them.

Zayde grabbed the poker that stood by the fireplace, then cautiously approached the door. Before he was even halfway there, though, he could tell that whoever it was posed no danger, and he dropped the iron rod with a clatter. “Come here, quickly!” he called out to his wife. “Someone needs our help!”

Bubbe sat Isaac on the stairs, wordlessly admonishing him to stay put, then hurried out to help her husband. But of course Isaac could not stay, and instead moved quickly but cautiously into the kitchen to watch.

The first thing he saw was his Zayde, helping the man up and into the kitchen. “Zayde!” he called out in fear.

“It’s all right,” his grandmother assured him. Then, after helping the man to the table for a bowl of clear broth, Zayde said:

“Never forget what the prophet Isaiah tells us, little Isaac. We are to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the poor, who are cast out, into our house.”

* * *

Listen: as important as it is to realize that God’s gift of free will is woven into the very fabric of our universe, we must not overlook the meaning of that gift: along with the power to choose, we are given an awesome responsibility.

We live in a world where so many live lives that are immersed in that darkness, that tohu va-vohu, something most prefer to ignore. Just look at the Sudan, at Iraq, at Chechnya, at Sri Lanka. Just look in the eyes of the homeless of our own country, in our own community. For some, that darkness is one of poverty. For others, it is the isolation of sadness and despair. For many it is a chaotic world where dreams are capriciously denied by tyrants, from which no escape seems possible. For all, it is a state in which the isolation from comfort, from real hope and human contact, is the overarching reality.

If there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that there is not a single answer to the world’s complex problems. There is no single religion, no single philosophy, that has the “right” answer. But that does not absolve us of the requirement to act.

How? When we shed the light of our attention, of our care and concern on those in need, we dissolve the ambiguity of their lives. We allow a real and lasting hope to begin. But we cannot limit our attention to a single day, to a single effort. For if we do, we increase the likelihood that that momentary glimpse of hope may be swallowed up by the returning chaos of despair.

There are those out there who see the power and prestige of the wealthy and the privileged and wonder why they must lead such difficult lives. They pay attention to those living in tohu va-vohu not to breed compassion, but fear and anger.

It is our responsibility to act, not as agents of destruction, but as agents of hope. It is our responsibility to act in a way that deprives others of a reason for hatred or fear. It is our responsibility to offer genuine opportunity to those who live in that chaos by opening the doors of our world to them, and inviting them inside.

It is our responsibility to help build a world that sustains them – and us.

And so we must, with a measure of caution but a double measure of hope, work together to become that light to the nations that God promised we could be.

Join me this year in taking up God’s gift to humanity – and the responsibility it demands. Join me this year in committing yourself to some form of social action, in that active concern for others we call Tzedakah – Justice. Justice for those in our community, our nation, our world.

And in so doing, join me in becoming one of God’s many partners in creation. In Tikkun Olam.

Shanah Tovah.

© 2004-2007 James F. Brulé