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Learning to Live With the Unpredictable

Illustration: Liora Blum

As humans we crave certainty.We imagine that our lives can be run and controlled entirely by our own decisions that will lead to certain outcomes.Modern life has become even more adept at making this illusion a reality.From the mundane such as Waze, predicting our exact ETA to any destination, to the incredible man on the moon, to the formidable advances in medicine. We are constantly marching towards advancement gripping with all our might certain knowledge, certain outcomes, and a certain future. The reality of the last six months has proven otherwise. Every single human being on the planet - that's all of 7.5 billion people - has faced some form of adversity as a result of Covid-19.

This need for certainty is a perennial part of human nature. In her book Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein offers a fascinating view of Greek thinking as reflected in the Greek term kleos, which means glory or renown.In the face of man's mortality and short-lived life, what mattered in Greek culture was the legacy you left behind, "the extraordinary" - the glory of your actions as reflected through the approval of the masses.Our mortality can be conquered through fame.Not much has changed today; in fact things have got progressively worse. We constantly seek the approval of others, whether it is the amount of "likes" or reactions we receive to our Facebook or Twitter posts, approval ratings in the political and social realm, or the "reality show" culture that looks to quick fame and fortune as a fix for anonymity and individual insecurity.Existential angst is superficially plastered over with short-term fame and fortune and approval ratings. This dialectical swing between the need for humans to control their conditions and its opposite, the awareness of our absolute mortality and lack of certainty, finds expression in Rav Soloveitchik's notorious Adam 1 and Adam 2.In his essay "The Lonely Man of Faith", using the paradigms set out in the first two chapters of Bereshit, he describes two kinds of human beings. Adam1 is our scientist, he is mandated by God to conquer nature, rule over it, control it, and subdue it.He is the person who craves certainty and answers.He questions in order to receive answers, he seeks to find a solution and he will not stop until he has found one.If Adam 1 is the scientist then Adam 2 is the philosopher.Much like Socrates he asks the questions not to get an answer, but to reflect on the mystery.He seeks neither certainty nor control.He is mandated by God to work and guard the garden.He yearns for a higher realm, to live in the presence of a greater force, but not necessarily to understand or conquer it.Adam 2 represents the moment we retreat from our battle towards absolute certainty.He is the man on the roller-coaster of life, riddled with doubts and crises, staring incurable disease in the face.He is the man who knowingly acknowledges that not everything is within his control.David Brooks, an American cultural commentator, imagines these two individuals as representing two types of character traits in his book The Road to Character. The first, Adam 1, he defines as possessing "resume virtues": our external successes, our accomplishments, achievements, career goals. The second, Adam 2, represents what he terms "eulogy virtues": the type of person they were, what they gave of themselves, the values they upheld, the goals they strived towards in perfection of the self. For Rav Soloveitchik and David Brooks we can possess both these typologies within the one person. For Rav Soloveitchik, man from his inception has been mandated by the Divine to live a life oscillating between these two extremes with Halacha as the mechanistic swing between the two. We are destined to live between the two, striving to control, innovate, create and march forward, while equally acknowledging the limits of our human capabilities.

The first narrative surrounding human beings in Bereshit encapsulates this idea with immense profundity.In chapter 3 of Bereshit we see Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.They have everything at their disposal; the garden is given to them in its entirety.There is just one thing that must be left untouched, one element of their surroundings that remains a mystery, an unanswered question – the tree of knowledge. That, says God, you must not eat from.That is to remain out of reach rooted in the realm of the unknown.The serpent comes along and plants a doubt in the mind of Eve.He says to her, "You will not surely die (if you eat from the tree) for God knows on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and bad." (Bereshit 3:4)

Says the serpent, "You too can be like God knowing good and evil.You need not remain mortal sentenced to the annals of history, forgotten and unknown; you can become like God - an immortal being who possesses absolute knowledge and certainty of being."The temptation is too much to bear. Eve and afterwards Adam, in an attempt to defy the one mystery that remains, eat from the tree of knowledge.In that moment of seeking immortality their mortality is born. As they are exiled from Eden, their existence in governed by the oscillation between Adam 1 and Adam 2. Man must work the land, he must plant seeds, tend to them, wait for them to grow learning that the process of growth is not instant.

The woman too must labour for her fruits. She must carry her unborn foetus for nine months.Even today, with all the technology we possess, this is an uncertain period for many women. After the child is born, mothers too must learn to expect the unexpected; they must give up an element of control in their lives to raise healthy and stable offspring.Child-rearing is not a science; we must work for our future and we must also recognise that some things are beyond our control. Equally we must nurture within each child values, dignity and the ability to curb instant gratification for long-term gain. We have to nurture both the Adam 1 and Adam 2 traits whilst struggling for survival.

Living in Israel today we are exposed on a daily basis to this very dialectic.We are probably one of the most innovative countries in the world. We are constantly creating and developing new ideas in every field of expertise.We possess the ability of Adam1, to conquer the world, to be visionaries and pioneers in all areas.Yet equally we are reminded, a little too often and in a devastating way, of our inability to control everything and anything.Terror attacks and existential threats have made us far too adept at accepting the unpredictable, and acknowledging the limit of our mortality.We don't need reminding that life is so very uncertain.Today in the face of the Covid crisis humanity at large has had to face up to the Adam 2 part of its being. The inner Adam1 has come face to face with the inner Adam 2. We face the limits of our mortality and begin to ask, what legacy will we leave behind? What are we fighting to achieve? Which areas of our existence can we, and should we, yearn to control?

Rav Soloveitchik has a corollary to the two Adams in the type of communities they foster. Adam 1 advances a natural work community where my communion with the other is pragmatic and utilitarian. I see the other as means to achieving the ends I desire. This is the kind of community we are extremely adept at creating in our humdrum twenty-first century lives. Adam 2 nurtures a covenantal community which views the other as an end in itself. They treat the other with dignity; the relationship is based on mutual respect and a search for redemption from loneliness. In a covenantal community I take absolute responsibility for the other simply because he/she is seen as being bezelem elokim – in the image of God.This kind of community is hard to come by in today's world. The hedonistic narcissism, the resume-driven individuals, and the technological revolution have all created a world in which social responsibility and individual altruism are anomalies. Because of this the fight against Covid, which requires in many cases altruism and absolute social responsibility, has been a hard one to battle.

May our prayer be that all of humanity begins to foster the Adam 2 resume virtues, awakening ourselves to our inner voice in a search for an existential cure for society's ills, whilst concurrently supporting the Adam 1 scientists in their work towards a physical cure for the disease. 

 

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Thursday, 28 October 2021

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