In 2013, forty years to the day after the Yom Kippur War. Major General Eli Zeira, former head of Military Intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces appeared in Tel Aviv, before an audience of national security experts. He was 85 years old and his gait was slightly unsteady as he walked onto the stage. Though four decades had passed since he had been found to have committed grave failures in judgment that led up to the full scale invasion of the Yom Kippur War and was dismissed from his post, he came to defend himself.
Major General Zeira said that he made three mistakes leading up to Yom Kippur 1973. The first was in not creating a defensive line along the mountain ridges near the Suez Canal, the second was he did not know the soul of his enemy believing that a full scale invasion was possible, and the last was that he failed to consult the handwritten note that he had in his pocket at all times. The note said, ve im lo? And what if not? The note was a reminder to not hold too fast to established ideas and concepts. The note was supposed to remind him to question himself, to not let certainties remain certain, to allow for the possibility that was he thought was right, was in fact not right. [Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better]
Even with all the preparation in the world, we can make bad decisions. We will still disappoint the people who look to us. We desire certainty. We desire guarantees. No one desires second thoughts or lingering concerns. Who wants to ask about their life choices, about their careers, about their values – ve im lo – what if this is not the way I am supposed to be living or not the way I want to live. Ve im lo means building into our lives an opportunity for second thoughts, for starting over again.
There is a well-known, almost clichéd, Hasidic story about not one but two notes that every person has in his or her pockets – one saying the world was created for me the other saying I am but dust and ashes. In one hand total certainty, in the other total self-effacement and misgiving. Hovering on the fulcrum between them – ve im lo – the virtues of humility, of patience.
So often as human beings our response to doubt is to vigorously defend ourselves and our position to our spouses, our children, our coworkers. We are so sure we are right. We are righteously right. When in private we harbor doubts. Thinking perhaps that doubts or uncertainty will make us seem weak.
The Israeli Poet Yehuda Amichai addresses these doubts in his poem, The Place Where We Are Right.
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Yom Kippur is the day when we admit the possibility that we are not right. We spend 25 hours digging up the hard, trampled yard of our lives, of our relationships. Those arguments with spouses where we knew we were right, the long simmering resentments we have towards our siblings because they do things the wrong way; nothing has grown from those places so tonight, today instead of beginning from certainty, we begin from doubt. Nothing can come out of the ten days of repentance and Yom Kippur if we speak only from the place where we are right.
How might the conversation with your wife, your child, your brother, your partner be different if you remained curiously open instead of certain and closed? If we begin from places of doubts and loves?
We make decisions about people and situations and once made, we stick to those decisions. But oh the damage we do. How many children have been harmed for years because of a decision made about who they were or what they could accomplish? Which relationships have been destroyed because of public certainty but private doubts? Can we see someone as more than a few comments they once said? As different than one or two things they did?
Are we willing to embrace second thoughts even, or especially about ourselves? The rabbinic commentary on the teaching from Pirkei Avot which encourages us to gives others the benefit of the doubt [Avot 1:6] observes that we are always giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt to rationalize our own behavior. The innovation of Jewish tradition is that we are asked to treat others as we usually treat ourselves. On Yom Kippur we do the opposite, we are more objective about ourselves than we usually are. We are more critical of our own motives and behaviors, asking ourselves ve im lo.
We who have always seen ourselves in a certain way must also ask ve im lo? What if I’m not who I think I am? That is the essence of the words before the Ashamnu – tzadikim anachanu ve lo hatanu we are righteous, without sin, we know who we are, we are good people, we do the right thing, make good choices. That’s what we want to say and maybe we can get away with it the rest of the year. But tonight? aval anachnu ve avoteinu chatanu we and our fathers and mothers have sinned. Not only are we different than we imagined, but our parents too are different than who we imagined them to be.
Call it sin, call it mistake, call it error in judgement, call it a bad choice. The problem? We do those things and then we stick to it unwilling or unable to allow for the possibility that there might be another way. That is the reason we read the Haftorah for Isaiah on Yom Kippur morning – it is the ultimate expression of ve im lo – what if we are not observing Yom Kippur the right way? Even as we sit here, praying, and fasting and beating our breasts, Isaiah makes us question ourselves – what if this is not the way God wants us to observe Yom Kippur? Even the expression of the holiest day of the year is rightly called into question.
There is enough fundamentalism in the world, enough religious extremism that says, we are certain we are right. That is not our way as a people and it is not our way as individuals. Certainty results in ruined houses and trampled yards. Look around, look at your own house, your own yard to see how it has been ruined and trampled, how it has been thirsty for doubts and love.
In the book of Exodus when the children of Israel are being typically ornery and hard to love, God makes a decision to consume the people of Israel with hot wrath. Moses stands in the breach between his people and his God and says ve im lo, what if you didn’t destroy them? What if you allowed for the possibility that they might change and grow? And after listening to Moses, God changes God’s mind.
Even God revises decisions. Even God changes plans. Even God has second thoughts.
Towards the end of the circular, descending corridor of the beautifully designed Yitzhak Rabin Museum high up overlooking Tel Aviv, there exists a place for quiet reflection. In that space one text is engraved upon the wall. Not the words of a prophet nor an inspiring quote from a speech, nor a prayer for peace. Rather the words to Amichai’s poem,” From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring… and a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.”
On the fulcrum between the arrogance of certainty and the self-importance of doubt we can hear a whisper at the balance point. The whisper says ve im lo and what if not?