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Doubt and Certainty

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Akiva Tatz

Searching for clarity and the road back to the garden.

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A close examination of human difficulties will reveal that at their root lies doubt. Not knowing with full confidence what one's direction should be is the most energy-sapping element in our lives. In depth, all our existential tension and anxiety stem from doubt. In isolated ordeals and in life in general we struggle most profoundly to identify the correct path – and it seems impossible.

Very often the problem lies not in finding the strength to cope with adversity – one feels one would go through fire willingly if only one knew in which direction! If only we could be sure that this or that particular path were correct in an absolute sense, that it would not let us down unpredictably, we would find the raw courage to walk that path.

But that is not our experience: we choose a direction, perhaps feeling that this must be the correct one, and tomorrow we are forced to wonder how we could possibly have seen things that way yesterday – the situation appears exactly opposite now. And of course, the next day we feel even more confused – eventually we lose confidence in our sense of direction altogether. Life is a halting, faltering business – three steps ahead today, two backwards tomorrow, and so often no more than helpless circles with the dismay of crossing our own tracks repeatedly.

The most dangerous forms of falsehood are those which contain almost all truth.

Let us dissect this matter. The mystics call this world "alma d'sfeika" – a world of doubt. Intrinsically, the world is a confusing mixture of good and bad, true and false. It is also called "alma d'shikra" – a world of falsehood; however the deepest essence of that falsehood is that it contains an admixture of good: if not for the component of good it could never exist, and therein lies the confusion. In fact, the most dangerous forms of falsehood are those which contain almost all truth – they are the most deceptive.

Nothing in the world is entirely good or bad, every choice, every decision has a cost, and in many ordeals the combination of factors on either side of the moral choice is so complex that we respond with paralysis.

What is the source of doubt underlying this "world of doubt"? The answer of course, must be in Torah, in the Torah's description of how the human condition came to be. Adam was faced with the primal choice – to obey the Divine command and refrain from eating the fruit of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" or to disobey. The world he experienced was perfect; the tree however, held the awesome power to release evil into the world.

A striking question which must be asked is: Why is the tree referred to as "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil"? Surely it should be named "the tree of the knowledge of evil"; it is the source of evil in the Creation, why good and evil? But that is the point exactly. If the tree were of evil only, that evil would be so easily identifiable, so odious and hideous that no one would ever engage it! It would be the most obvious thing in the world to avoid – it would never present a temptation, an ordeal. It is the knowledge of good and evil combined, confused, which is the problem!

"Knowledge" always means intimate association, intrinsic bonding: The tree combines good and evil so thoroughly that after its fruit is ingested the human becomes a tangled knot of both elements. No situation is entirely clear thereafter. Never can we completely separate our lower selves, our vested interests, from our pure core dimension. And that is the problem. That is the root of all sadness.

When Adam confronted that tree, he was pure and the world was pure. Evil existed only as an objective, dispassionate possibility external to himself. But when he ate that fruit, evil became internalized within himself and within the goodness of the world, and now the human mind can never resolve its doubts entirely, never read the world plainly as the open book it once was. No wonder the mystics refer to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as "the tree of doubt"!

What happens after man eats from the tree? He hides in the garden. Hides from God, Who is everywhere! How could Adam imagine that he could hide – he knew God as no human has ever since, knew deeply that God is all-seeing and all-knowing? How could he hope to escape by hiding? The answer is that he no longer sees reality clearly – on the one hand he knows God exists, that is why he is hiding! But on the other hand, he somehow thinks, incredibly, that he can hide! What a most deeply pathetic figure he has become, hiding from that which he knows is inescapable and yet fooling himself anyway. Is that not the description of our lives?

And far more shocking, God's response. God appears in the garden and calls to Adam, "Where are you?" The Creator of the Universe, Who sees all, knows all, asks, "Where are you?" As if He cannot see Adam! When man attempts to hide, to blur reality into a crazy, fractured version of itself, God responds in kind, allows man to see the world that way; measure for measure exactly. You wish to escape My notice, to feel you are independent, hidden from My gaze? "Where are you?" Man is allowed to perceive falsely that he is alone – the greatest pain of all.

The Jewish people's arch-rival is the nation of Amalek. The numerical values for the Hebrew forms of the words Amalek and doubt are identical. The descendant of Amalek who tried to destroy the entire Jewish people was Haman (from the Purim story): the Talmud indicates his name in the Garden of Eden, at the time of Adam's sin; when God asks Adam that second question "Did you eat from the tree? – 'Hamin ha'etz' the word "hamin" ("Did you?") is the name "Haman." That gap between reality and perception, the gap of doubt, opens with the sin. And that is our enemy.

After his expulsion from the garden, Adam cannot go back. Placed as guards outside the garden are Beings wielding swords. The swords are unusual – they flash blades turning continually. There are commentaries who explain this symbolism: the turning sword is the lethal weapon of doubt. Today one's reality appears thus and tomorrow different. Always. And man cannot find the road back to the garden – the garden keeps eluding him, the road keeps changing. Not only is he confused about where he is, but the road back to clarity is in doubt too.

Admixture is a part of our world. The mystics say that just as Adam ingested a mixture, so we are condemned to do the same in our very bodies – our food is a mixture of wholesomeness and waste. Together they are tasty; but within the body the necessary elements are extracted and absorbed, and the waste is revealed as offensive in the extreme. Within the organism of our being! When people reach spiritual purity – when some element of the garden is attained – this ceases: in the desert the Jewish people ate manna, and there was no excretion. Pure existence can be fed by pure food, and there is no waste, no lower side of reality, and no need for separation.

Our condition requires a lifetime of separating good from bad, extracting the pure, the spiritual the good, and ejecting the evil, exposed for what it is. Our life's work is to strive for this clarity. Everything needs to be examined for its element of holiness, and that holiness extracted. God Himself says, "And I shall bear, and I shall expel" – forcibly eject the evil eventually.

A fascinating insight into the subject of doubt can be gained from examining the root words themselves, as always in Torah. The Hebrew word for doubt is "safek," and for certainty, "vadai." Amazingly, these commonly-used words are not to be found in the entire biblical writings! Nowhere does the Torah mention the Hebrew forms for doubt or certainty. Both these words are of Rabbinic origin.

The word for "doubt" is of human origin; it is a result of the damage we do to our own perception.

Now we know that the essence of an idea is contained in the Torah word for that idea; if there is no word, it surely means that in essence that concept does not exist. And of course – the world as formed by its root in Torah contains no doubt: things either exist or they do not. There is nothing in the world that exists "doubtfully," tentatively; doubt is our problem, a feature of our perception, not an objective reality! And if there is no doubt external to us, of course there is no certainty – certainty exists only where doubt is a possibility; if there can be no doubt there can be no certainty, a thing simply "is"!

(The truth is, we are so confused that we say we are sure exactly when we are not: "I'm sure I saw him yesterday" really means one is not sure at all! When one is certain one simply states the fact: "I saw him yesterday.")

The primal, pristine world of God's Creation is dear and open. We opacify and confuse it. The word for "doubt" is of human origin; it is a result of the damage we do to our own perception.

Doubt is truly brought into being by us. And we must fight our way towards certainty. As we develop our consciousness in spiritual terms we can approach it. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we struggle for ultimate clarity, we say "God's name is 'certainty,' so be His praise"; the name we attach to God, as it were, in our struggle to see Him more clearly, is "vadai," certainty. The word for "certainty," too, is of human origin; our battle is to crystallize perception, to make truth shine clearly.

So our ordeals are confusing. That is their essence. Our task is to develop the tenacity to hold onto the truth even when tempted to see it change. Our goal is to break through into clarity – that is transcendence! And that is the meaning of "There is no happiness like the resolution of doubts." The greatest happiness is simply knowing one's direction. Even if one has not yet started along the road; simply knowing which road to follow in life is a great elation. Torah is that direction, and one's personal portion in Torah is that road.

Reprinted with permission from "LIVING INSPIRED." Published by

Join Rabbi Tatz this Thursday, March 6 and discover the secrets of reality and illusion in our everyday lives. Just in time for Purim.
Click here for more information.

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