The Torah teaches that our great, great, great grandfather, Levi, had three sons. Their names were Gershon, Kehat, and Merari. All three sons, along with their children and grandchildren, ended up going into the family business: Being the caretakers of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Children of Israel carried with them during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. The job of Kehat and his sons was to carry the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark that contained within it the Torah. Merari and his sons carried the poles and the planks of the Mishkan. Finally, Gershon and his sons, we learn in this week’s parashah, parashat Naso, carried the fabrics that covered the Mishkan and the hooks that held them in place.
According to Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, a great Hasidic rabbi from the 19th century, the three brothers could not have been more different, and the job of each matched his personality. The Ark that Kehat’s family carried symbolized the fact that Kehat was always certain. He was confident that he possessed the Torah of truth, that he held God’s will close by, and that, therefore, all of his decisions were the right ones. Kehat believed that he would always make the right choice or, failing that, that he could make any outcome work in his favor. This helped him take risks and live life adventurously and unafraid.
The poles and planks Merari and his family carried symbolized Merari’s desire for stability and structure in his life. He was not as self-assured as his older brother. He was more cautious, and avoided, whenever possible, putting himself in situations where he could not be reasonably assured of the outcome. And when he found that he had to put himself in those kinds of situations, he did everything he could to prepare himself for and protect himself from the unknown and potentially hazardous consequences of his decisions.
And finally, the coverings and hooks that Gershon and his family carried were symbolic of the fact that, in his life, Gershon most desired security from falling apart. Gershon, the eldest brother, was constantly overwhelmed by doubt, anxiety, and fear. So terrified was he of making the wrong decisions, of putting himself in situations where he might get hurt, that he rarely stepped foot out of the house. And when he did, it was only to go to those places where he was certain he would be safe, or to do those activities that he knew with certainty were the right things to do, or to make those choices where he knew that the outcome would work in his favor.
Three sons, three brothers, with three different jobs that correspond to three very different personalities. And the question my teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, has challenged me to think about in this parashah, and which I will challenge all of us to consider together, is which one of these brothers are we, and which one of these brothers should we be? On some level, are we each of these brothers? Do they represent different aspects of who we are, and are all elements of our complex personalities? Should we emphasize the qualities of one or the other at various times in our lives, according to the needs of that particular moment? This, too, begs the question of whether any one of these paradigms should serve as a model as we walk through the desert of life?
Kehat, for instance, is the person that many of us might like to be but few of us actually are, at least not most of the time. Many of us would like to possess the unchecked confidence that would allow us to be more adventurous and to take more risks. Many of us would like to be able to make our decisions without entertaining any fears that things might turn out badly. Many of us wish we could assume, by default, that all our decisions will the right ones or that, if our decision turns out to have led us down the wrong path, that we could always make any outcome work to our benefit. If you knew, or at least believed, that you could never fail; if in the depths of your heart you believed that you would succeed at whatever you set yourself to, can you think of all the amazing things you could do and achieve?! Wouldn’t that be an amazing way to live?! What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
But such a way of living is also fraught with peril. Life, after all, can be dangerous and unpredictable. The optimism that things will always work out for the best does not always mean that, in reality, it will happen the way we planned. It is possible that, from time to time, a situation will arise where we have no idea how to respond. It is possible that, despite our belief in ourselves and despite our best efforts, we will nevertheless fall and fail. And more than this, life is filled with complex dilemmas, subjective goods, and evolving truths. Given this, those who believe wholeheartedly in their own rightness are quite often delusional or, at the very least, come across as know-it-all jerks who leave the rest of us begging for more nuance, complexity, and humility. The line between confidence and cockiness or arrogance is a very thin line indeed, and I am sure we can all think of plenty of examples of people who we’ve experienced as having crossed it.
Meanwhile, the life of Merari is stable and secure. The Merari type engages in the world, but does so in a way that is measured, prepared, and ready for any contingency. Merari wants to live life, but wants to do so in a way that makes him insulated from the possibility of pain. So he always takes the safest possible route, always studies the way ahead, always meticulously charts out the route, and always has a backup plan in case his first course of action fails. He takes some risks, but always with the knowledge that the risks ought to be measured and with good odds of success, and always with a plan for what to do if the risk flops. Many of us would call this approach to life reasonable, but, I would think, many of us would also admit that it is quite boring, predictable, and passionless. By planning everything out, Merari’s engagement with the world becomes devoid of struggle and questioning. And without struggle, there can be no real learning, no real growth, no real novelty, individuality, discovery, or innovation. Indeed, in such a measured life, even love is ultimately elusive, because love requires much vulnerability. Love requires the willingness to endure unforeseeable and, possibly, tragic, circumstances. As Bruce Springsteen reminds us, “that feeling of safety you prize comes with a hard, hard price. You can’t shut out the risk and the pain without losing the love that remains.” Love, to put it bluntly, requires the faith, the confidence, and the resilience of Kehat.
Finally, we arrive at Gershon. Given the radical unpredictability of life and the difficulty of knowing whether any choice will, in fact, be the right one, Gershon’s paralyzing doubt, on some level, seems most reasonable. How can we ever know with certainty whether a decision we make is right until we make it and find out? How can we ever know whether we have taken the right path until we take it and find out? Is there even such a thing as a right decision? Maybe we should be skeptical, cautious, and suspicious. And how are we going to deal with the consequences if it turns out we got it wrong? How can we even know all the consequences ahead of time? Every moment of our lives, every decision, is so pregnant with the dark danger of the unknown, that we have every reason to be terrified of the possible and unforeseeable outcomes. Since we can never be certain of what we will find, or what compromises may be asked of us, maybe we should simply sit on the sidelines of life, where it’s safe.
On the other hand, there is a real downside to the Gershon approach. The Ishbitzer, states it beautifully: “Perhaps they are holding back in a place where God has actually commanded action.” In other words, Gershon’s fear blinds him to the opposite doubt that he should also be asking himself, namely, whether the choice of sitting on the sidelines is holding him back from accomplishing something profoundly important! Perhaps his life will actually be worse off, and not safer, by giving into the doubt. Perhaps there is something that he needs to do, that he needs to achieve, and that he indeed can accomplish, something that will make his life and the world better, if he would only overcome the fear and take the leap of action necessary to do it. Without some of the confidence of Kehat, or at least the measured steps forward of Merari, Gershon’s fears could lead to a depressing lack of self-fulfillment or even self-destruction.
Three brothers with three very different approaches to life’s many questions and possibilities. All of them involve, in some way, safek, doubt. For Gershon and Merari, the doubt and uncertainty are palpable and motivating. But doubt of a different sort also motivates Kehat, the uncertainty of what life will look like if one did not act with confidence and faith. And, despite Kehat’s confidence, the doubtfulness and uncertainty of life remains, and continues to threaten to upend Kehat’s world at every turn. And so I return to the question: who are you, and who should you be?
The answer, I think, is that we should each of us strive to be conscientious doubters. As the Talmud teaches, “limed l’shonekha lomar, ‘eini yode’a’ / Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’” When we feel so utterly convinced that we are right, or that a certain course of action is undoubtedly the correct or most prosperous course of action, from time to time, remind ourselves to say, ‘I don’t know.” Maybe I don’t know for a fact whether the best possible scenario will come true. Perhaps I should consider what might happen if the worst ends up happening? Am I willing to risk the consequences of possibly being wrong in this situation simply because of the allure of what might happen if I am right? Is there another way to look at this idea or decision that I might not yet have thought of, but which might encourage me to think about it in a way that will ultimately be more to my benefit? This, after all, is the advice Socrates gives on his deathbed in Plato’s Apology, that “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” In other words, maybe we should cultivate enough awareness of ourselves to stop for a moment and ask, “Am I acting like Kehat here? Well, what if I am wrong?”
Similarly, we should empower ourselves to pause and ask, “Am I acting like Gershon here? Well, what if I am wrong? Maybe I should be more like Kehat!” When we feel so utterly afraid of the possible negative outcome of a direction we are offered to take in life, when we are uncertain if an answer is the right answer, or if a choice is the right choice, remind ourselves to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if the worst possible scenario will come true. I don’t know for a fact if I am wrong about this idea or decision. And what might happen if I am right? What might happen if the best possible scenario indeed works out? Am I willing to miss out on the benefits of possibly being right in a situation simply because I am afraid of what might happen to me if I am wrong? When you are anxious or afraid: look it in the eye and embrace it. After all, who’s to say that success is not lying in wait if only you would take that one risk, that one leap of faith, that one confident step?
And, finally, beyond all the doubt, above our ability to analyze ourselves and ask ourselves the difficult questions, what we can ultimately rely on is each other. That’s why, after all the tasks had been assigned to Gershon, Kehat, and Merari, the Torah teaches, al pi Adonai pakad otam b’yad Moshe, which literally means “and God left them in the care of Moses’ hand.” In the words of Rabbi Milton Steinberg in As a Driven Leaf, “No matter what other doubts we may entertain, we cannot question the reality of friendship. And in a world where so little is certain that is a great deal.” Through all the doubt and uncertainty, we can always hold fast to the strength, guidance, support, and love offered to us by friends and family. May each of us find someone’s hand to take hold of as we carry our burdens through the wilderness of life, for in so doing, regardless of what might come our way, we will always have the strength to move forward. Shabbat Shalom.