By Harrison Goldstein
Students at the Rosenbloom Hillel Center discussed the Jewish approach to life’s many uncertainties with Dr. David Bernstein of the Pardes Institute Wednesday afternoon.
Bernstein is the dean of the Pardes Institute, a co-ed and non-denominational Jewish learning community. Based in Jerusalem, Pardes offers programs worldwide.
Bernstein’s “Living in an Uncertain World” program was an analytical discussion of how ancient Jewish texts teach lessons that can be applied to current-day issues, specifically those surrounding a lack of certainty in life.
“There are only two things in the world we can be sure of: death and taxes,” Bernstein began. “Everything else is uncertain.”
He then introduced the fundamental question of the lesson: If we can’t be sure of anything, then how does one go on?
Bernstein reviewed the story of Abraham, in which God made several divine promises. He promised Abraham that He would bless him with large amounts of land for Abraham and his ancestors, contingent on Abraham leaving his homeland to go to the land that God would show him. God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, although He stopped Abraham before he could go through with it. The faith that Abraham showed in obeying God’s commands was the first step in the history of Jewish uncertainty.
Bernstein said that God deliberately put the Jewish people in a place –the land of Israel– where they would have to live with uncertainty.
“In Egypt, if you want to water your field, you look down,” Bernstein said, referring to the ever-fertile and often overflowing Nile River. “If you’re in Israel, you look up. That’s why we pray for rain so much. God put us in a place where our livelihoods would be uncertain from the beginning. That was part of the plan.”
Positive psychology, both inside and outside of Jewish texts, maintains that the key to happiness is an appreciation of what one has, Bernstein said.
“Who is the rich person? The person who is happy with what he has,” said Bernstein. “Gratitude and appreciation in the face of normal life increases human happiness.”
Freshman biology major Veronica Leifer, one of the students attending the lesson, said she was able to better understand the abstract lessons that Bernstein was teaching because he added historical context.
“I thought that the texts that he used were interesting because I wouldn’t initially relate them to uncertainty,” Leifer said. “He was really great at giving historical context with some things like the Nile, showing how we have similar uncertainties even though we aren’t farmers. There are a lot of things that are out of your control.”
Bernstein’s contemporary example of uncertainty was Donald Trump’s presidential victory. At the beginning of his campaign process, nobody—not even his closest advisors—could truly conceive of his winning the election. However, it has now been a year since he was elected president.
Bernstein added that at the beginning of a year, nobody can say with certainty who will die that year, who will give birth, where natural disasters will strike, or whether someone will land that dream job or internship.
“I really love learning Jewish texts, and learning what they have to say about modern understanding, especially on a day like today (one year since President Trump was elected),” said Haley Schulman, assistant director of engagement at Pardes. “There’s been a lot of uncertainty in the past year, and it feels really meaningful to me to see pieces of our ancient tradition have something to say about that and how we should feel about that.”
The overarching lesson from Dr. Bernstein about how to deal with life’s uncertainties was to do good things and take advantage of our time on Earth, because we don’t know how much time we have.
“God tells Moses that prayer [alone] is not enough. You’ve got to move,” Bernstein said. “If we take [life] for granted, feel entitled and don’t appreciate anything, it leads to a place of selfishness, whereas if one has a sense of appreciation, that’s the basis for a moral or religious life. If you can’t appreciate and be thankful for what you have, it’s hard to be a moral person.”