Jewish Journal

Holy Doubt

Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 - 7:89)

by Reb Mimi Feigelson

Posted on May. 27, 2004 at 8:00 pm

Rabbi Elie Spitz wrote a wonderful book, titled "Does the Soul Survive?," dealing with life after death, but for me this title is the question that I continuously ask in regard to life after birth. Does our soul survive the journey that we lead it through in our lifetime? How do we know that what we are doing with our life and the way we are trying to sustain our soul is indeed life-affirming? In the instances of blurred vision, how do we embrace the not knowing -- the doubt? And beyond all, is there room to serve God from a place of doubt and transform our doubt from a distancing agent into holy doubt that functions as an indicator of intimacy and faith in the One And Only?

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitza (1800-1853), in his unique Chasidic teachings, the Mei HaShiloach, portrays the three sons of Levi, as described in this week's Torah portion, as three models of serving God. The first, Gershon, is the "Ba'al Yir'ah" -- the master of awe and trepidation. The sons of Gershom carry the curtains of the Mishkan (tabernacle), which creates partitions and separates the realm of holy (the Mishkan) from all that is outside of it. Gershom represents our concern to never deviate from God's will. The children of Gershom will shy away from the unknown, for maybe they will be transgressing God's will in their actions.

His brother, Kehat, represents his counterpart -- the "Ba'alei Torah" -- the masters of the Torah. The sons of Kehat, the Levites that carry the Holy Ark on their own shoulders, represent those of us that have mastered their Torah study in such a way that we can bare the Torah on our bear shoulders. We are aligned with God's will and hence always able to decipher through all that we've learned what it is that God wants of us at any given moment.

And the third son, Merari, carries the poles -- the foundation -- of the Mishkan. He is the spokesperson for those of us who choose the middle road -- not overly cautious, not overly daring. The sons of Merari are the "Ba'alei Mitzvot u'Ma'asim Tovim" -- the masters of the commandments and good deeds. You will never find yourself questioning their actions -- they are exactly who they appear to be. No agony in their journey, yet no ecstasy as well. Masters of simplicity.

Close reading of the Ishbitzer Rebbe uncovers yet another trait other than their parents that they share in common -- their doubt in regard to their choice of service. Gershom lives in doubt, for maybe he restricted himself from a realm that God actually desired him to embrace. Kehat questions, "maybe I will go to far, maybe I can't really always master my Maker's wisdom and know what is asked of me." And Merari understands all too well what is the meaning of "no pain, no gain" and questions if his service is real and if he lacks growing pains.

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe we embody indeed all three of these paradigms, actualizing them at different junctions of our lives. The one constant element that we take with us is our doubt -- our holy doubt -- regardless of the path we choose. Our holy doubt is our indication that our soul is still alive and indeed surviving the journey of life.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) used to say, "The world to come is a big movie theater! In one eye you see every moment of your life -- your actions, thoughts, desires; your moments of fear and of joy. In your other eye you see every moment of what your life was to be (I hate the word should as in "should have been") -- again, every detail of the totality of who you are. When you see two different movies simultaneously, these are moments of hell, and when you see the same movie with both eyes, these are moments of heaven."

I believe that one doesn't have to die in order to inherit heaven or hell -- there are moments in our life that we are in the right place in the right time doing the right thing. These are moments of heaven. There are moments that one of those components is not aligned with the others and those are moments of hell.

There is a part of me that believes that we know to distinguish between these moments. A voice that continuously asks, "Was this heaven, or rather, hell?" There are times the answer is clear. Yet there are also other moments, when my clarity is blurred: the not knowing, the holy doubt seeps in.

When this happens I take refuge in the last verse of our Torah portion (Bamidbar 7: 89): Moshe, in his moments of not knowing, enters into the Ohel Mo'ed -- the tent of Meeting -- to speak to God. And as Moshe would do, we too, can enter into our own Ohel Mo'ed -- the place we encounter God. We, too, try to grasp the murmurs of the Divine as He speaks to Himself.

I have learned from this holy eavesdropping that what we share with God is our faith and our doubt. So many times our "What do I know?" and "Could this really be happening?" is but an echo of the Divine questioning and embracing the unknown in faith.

Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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