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Chaos & Order

10/08/2021 04:01:45 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

One of my favorite new movies is The Martian, with Matt Damon playing NASA astronaut Mark Watney. He’s part of a mission to Mars, but tragically, his team needs to evacuate during a sandstorm and he accidentally gets left behind on the Martian surface without a ship. He has to figure out how to survive in this unfamiliar and chaotic environment until NASA can send a rescue mission, which might take years. 


So he builds a greenhouse in what had been his base camp and begins growing food. As long as he is inside the greenhouse, everything is fine - he can breathe without his spacesuit, and he can help his little potatoes keep growing until he can eat them. But outside the thin greenhouse wall is the toxic chaos of the Martian atmosphere, and when that wall is ruptured, all that chaos comes rushing in, overturning the order that he had carefully cultivated. 


This is the reality of our lives, albeit in miniature form. We live in the apparent order of a greenhouse, orderly and predictable and we invest tremendous resources to make sure the world we experience remains orderly and predictable. Every once in a while though, we discover that the world which we experience as orderly is actually just a small island of order in a vast ocean of chaos. 

We deeply fear chaos. 

One of the central ways our tradition praises the Holy One is as the one who brings order to chaos - וּמְסַדֵּר אֶת־הַכּוֹכָבִים בְּמִשְׁמְ֒רוֹתֵיהֶם בָּרָקִֽיעַ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ - literally ordering the stars of the night sky in a tidy fashion, like a cosmic, divine Marie Kondo. 

Of course, like most of religion, this liturgy tells us very little about the Holy One, but reveals deep truths about ourselves. We need to perceive an order in those stars.

A wonderful article that my friend and BHA president, Jesse Lunin Pack, shared with me, explains that what is possibly the quintessential aspect of being human - imagining and planning for scenarios that have not yet happened - is predicated on predictability. I can plan a menu for Shabbat dinner next week because I assume certain realities so thoroughly that I don’t even ask “Will the air be breathable next week?” or “Where will I be sleeping next Friday night?” or “Will we be living under military curfew next week?” I can assume the answers to those questions because for better and for worse, I live in a reality that I experience as predictable and orderly. However, when certainty is not available, our lizard brains go haywire, spurring us to move and get to a situation where we feel safe

Safety is practically defined by having confidence about what is likely to happen next combined with confidence that we have the resources to handle whatever might happen next. 

If a kid is running and unexpectedly falls and scrapes their knee, they experience chaos - they had (unknowingly) predicted that their next step was stable and they would keep moving forward as they ran; in fact, the situation was not as predictable as they thought, their next step was not stable, and now they are crying on the ground with a bleeding knee. 

An adult, however, probably wouldn’t experience this as chaotic - even if we can’t express the particulars,  we are confident that the blood will clot, the immune system will fight off any infections, and if needed, we can easily access additional resources, like bandaids and bacitracin. 

In fact, more than we fear pain, we fear uncertainty about when pain will begin and end. Studies show that uncertainty about whether our job is stable takes a greater toll on our health than actually losing our job. British researchers found that people who knew they would receive a painful electric shock felt less agitated than those who were told they had a 50 percent chance of getting the electric shock.

As some of you might remember, some years ago, my wife was in the ICU with leukemia, which thankfully has been fully cured. I can say that now, but of course, back then, I had no idea what was happening next, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So I, of course, laser-focused on installing an outdoor thermometer and weather center in my yard. I couldn't control Alison’s illness, I couldn’t control the financial peril we were facing, but I could control - completely and absolutely - which weather station to install. Even better, that weather station would (ostensibly) forecast what the weather would be like in the future, which is all I really wanted. I just needed something to convincingly tell me that the sun would indeed come out tomorrow.  That thermometer was my little greenhouse of order in the hostile and downright martian sea of chaos that was my life at that moment .

The weird thing is that even though we fear chaos, we also deeply need chaos. The most terrifying moments of my life have been the chaotic ones, but so too have some of the most valuable moments of my life.  One of the best things I ever did was spend months biking and camping with Alison. We traveled the west coast and the east, not knowing what was in store for us on a given day not knowing where we would be sleeping most nights. It was blissful.

It's true that the unexamined life might not be worth living, and the corollary is true as well - the unlived life might not be worth examining. 

I balance my checkbook and mow my lawn so as to keep things neat and orderly, but in the words of Mary Oliver, “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.” I want to live while I am alive.  

We survive by way of order, but we live by way of chaos

The ancient Israelites had 49 days between liberation at the splitting of the Red Sea and receiving the yoke of the Torah at Sinai. We celebrate our liberation with Pesach, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Shavuot and we celebrate those 49 intermediate days with the counting of the Omer. The Sefat Emet, a Hasidic master from pre-war Poland, teaches that those 49 days are a time of essential spiritual anarchy, and we need to hold on to them forever, because those days are the source of Judaism’s vitality and strength.


I go hiking with my kids a lot, and there is a rope swing at one of the swimming holes we like to visit. When my kids found it, both of them were both terrified and desperate to get on it. 

This swing is unmaintained, almost certainly illegal, and absolutely a liability nightmare. It's chaos - and that’s what’s appealing about it. I could see the obvious risks of letting them do it - injury, paralysis, death. But I could also see the less obvious risks of not letting them jump - fear, timidity, unnecessary risk aversion. 

This might not be a popular opinion with the lawyers, but I’m not sure it’s always better to be safe than sorry - more than occasionally, I think we feel sorry for how safe we’ve been. 

To answer the obvious question, I didn’t let them on the swing on the day we found it. I checked with friends I have who grew up there, I scoped it out and watched other people use it. Once it was clear that it was very, very unlikely they would suffer any significant injury, we let the kids have at it. They had the time of their lives and lived to tell the tale with nary a scratch. One day, I hope to be as brave as them and do it myself.

The ancient rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of this tension - too much chaos, and life cannot endure; too much order and life endures, but not necessarily a life we would want to live. 

The Talmudic sage known as Rabbi Yochanan teaches that when King David began digging to build the foundation for the sacrificial altar in the Temple, something incredible happened. The tehom - the primordial chaos upon which the Holy One imposed order and in so doing, created the world - came rushing up from the center of the earth with tremendous ferocity and threatened to engulf the entire planet in a chaotic flood. 

When the tehom surged upwards, King David used magic to calm the surging waters and save the world. That sounds good, but not so fast - the watery chaos known as the tehom receded so deep into the earth that wells dried up, crops failed and human survival was again in peril, this time from too little chaos. So King David wrote the fifteen Sherei HaMaalot, the Psalms of Ascent to bring waters back up to a safe and useful level.

No chaos can be as dangerous as too much chaos.

And yet...

In the past year and a half, we have faced a level of chaos that many of us have found not invigorating, but terrifying. 

Obviously, COVID has been and continues to be a chaotic force, upending order in our health care, our schools, our very lives. There were days earlier this summer, when I - and perhaps many of us - thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, only to realize it was the headlight of an oncoming Delta train. Perhaps you remember January 6, when it seemed entirely plausible that the American government - and the order it provides - could actually fall, and in June, a twelve story apartment building in Miami did fall, killing nearly a hundred people. 

Buildings fall, public health systems fail, and governments can and do fall. I suspect I am not the only person here who has found the chaos of this pandemic and the past administration to be not invigorating, but terrifying. 

How do we live when we realize that the order upon which we rely is as thin as the mylar sheeting Mark Watney used to keep the chaos of the martian surface at bay? Do any of us know the magic King David used to keep chaos at an orderly level?


My teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker teaches how nearly a hundred years ago, Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, the Bridge of San Luis Rey. In it, Brother Juniper witnesses the catastrophic collapse of a bridge in Peru, which sent five people to their deaths. Now, Brother Juniper was a pious man, and he knew that God's justice was perfect. If these people died, there was a good reason for it, and he, Brother Juniper, was going to find it. So he investigated those who died and learned everything he could about their human sins and foibles. If these five people died before their time, that must mean, ipso facto, that they deserved to die. There is order in the universe, insists Brother Juniper, and my research shows these deaths were not random, but orderly. They died for their sins, however minor or petty they might have been. Brother Juniper is delighted when his work comes to the attention of ecclesiastical authorities, as he expects to be celebrated for his faith and his defense of God’s justice. Instead, both Brother Juniper’s book and its author are burned at the stake for heresy. 

Why should this sincere act from a pious man be condemned as heresy? What is the sin in insisting that that there is order in the universe, that neither our sufferings nor our joys are the function of random chaos? After all, from the book of Deuteronomy straight through to William James, conventional religious thought holds that there is an unseen order in the universe, and that our supreme good consists in adjusting ourselves to live in harmony with that order! What was Brother Juniper’s sin?

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonidies, addresses this exact question in his magnum opus, Moreh Nevuchim, The Guide for the Perplexed, which I learned with some of you last spring. He argued that the reality we know and experience - you know, reality - is but a tiny fraction of the entire universe. Things are indeed somewhat orderly and predictable in our tiny sliver of the universe, but our reality is to God’s universe what Mark Watney's greenhouse was to the martian landscape - a tiny illusion of order in vast chaos. 

I pride myself on having an orderly garage - the firewood is stacked here, all the holiday supplies are there, each in a box labeled Pesach or Hanukkah. So it's great that I have 50 linear feet of well organized shelving in my garage, but I live in a universe that is understood to be a hundred billion light years in diameter. It might be a very, very, very little bit of order in an eternity of chaos, but that little order soothes me. 

The human need to find order in chaos is so strong that one of the central precepts of Zen Buddhism is not-knowing. Of course, we know things - I know that my name is Brent, that I am standing in New York State and that the Mets have not won the World Series since 1986. At a deeper level though, there are things that not only do we not know, but that we can’t know. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why do babies die? Why do humans suffer?

Not-knowing, which is sometimes thought of as “beginner's mind” is the practice of continually setting aside fixed points of view, and simply recognizing that right now, it's like this. Perhaps it is not as it should be, or as I desire it to be, but right now, it's like this. We hold on to understandings which allow us to feel like the chaos is held in check, but when we allow those structures to crumble, we might be able to perceive our own center, a place of emptiness and profound silence. This is the darkness where things are not yet differentiated. In Jewish thought, this void is the ain sof, the undifferentiated chaos from which the world emerged and to which it will ultimately return. 

We once had a grand, magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem; it was the axis mundi, the literal, physical center of the world, until it was razed to the ground, rebuilt and razed again, a cycle of destruction that we mourn every summer on Tisha B’Av. That ordered structure inevitably fell, but at the center of the center, the Kodesh ha-Kodashim, was the sanctuary of silence, the available void which was always the actual center of our worship. 

The temple has long fallen, and if it is ever rebuilt, it will fall again. But that sanctuary of silence endures, as it ever will. 

Recognizing and even worshipping that void, that silent sanctuary, where nothing is known or knowable, requires an awareness that the world in which we know things is but a small part of the universe. It is the awareness that we all live in Mark Watney’s greenhouse, and while we might experience predictable order inside of it, outside, there is a vast arena we can’t know, and more importantly, our misguided efforts to impose a false order on that chaotic universe is both heretical and harmful. 

There is no one, fixed, absolute order that is true in all times and all places. There is, at most, a provisional guess based on the little bit we know, underneath which is the terrifying, beautiful, necessary, watery chaos. 

I can say all of these things, but while I love watching my kids embrace the chaos of life as they fly off the end of the rope swing into the water, the truth is that the chaos terrifies me. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals and graveyards to know that chaos, while occasionally romantic, usually brings tremendous pain and loss with it. There is nothing romantic about the chaos of Covid. 

Like Mark Watney on Mars, we live in a small bubble of order within a vast sea of chaos. 

Unlike Watney, however, we are not only ignorant of, but generally resistant to acknowledging the chaos beyond the thin mylar walls of our reality. There are, however, those ceasural moments when the martian air comes rushing in, the waters of the tehom come surging up and we realize that the order on which our lives are predicated can be washed away in an instant. 

The structures of the Temples fell, as did Brother Juniper’s moral economy, as does the barren order of King David’s magic. The chaos of the tehom is always there - there is no real reason why this person and not that person died on a bridge in Peru or a twelve story building in Miami or in a global pandemic. 

But the only life we can possibly live is in that greenhouse, with its limited, attenuated order. We are, after all, but dust and ashes - we emerged from that primordial chaos, and one day, hopefully far in the future, we will return to it. Mark Watney’s greenhouse didn’t conquer the Martian chaos, but it did carve out a very small arena in which Watney could live. However limited the order is, it is only in that order that we can live. 

Thornton Wilder ends his tale of Brother Juniper by saying “love [is] the only survival, the only meaning,” and indeed, love is the only thing I know for certain, and perhaps the only thing worth knowing. 

The real problem with Mark Watney’s greenhouse was not that its order was limited and contingent; that is the reality that we are all always in. The real problem was that he was entirely isolated, without human contact or connection. 

Judaism’s greatest articulation of the fundamental inscrutability of the universe is known as the Voice Out of the Whirlwind, in which the Holy One chastises Job for daring to ask why he suffered so. The Holy One thundered at Job for speaking without knowledge and assuming there must be some order to which even the Holy One is bound. The book of Job ends with the Holy One’s profound declaration that there is no ultimate order.

The Book of Job ends there, but the Torah doesn’t. Immediately after Job’s recognition that the painful chaos of the universe will endure is the Song of Songs, opening with the line, “Give me the kisses of your mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine.”

We love in many forms - we love our partners and our friends, our children and our parents. We find happiness in many, many wonderful forms of connection, but our happiness and well being rest on those human connections. 

There is enormous chaos in the universe and very little order. But the apparent order of the world is where we live and where we have space to connect with each other, to allow that divine electricity known as love to surge between us.

Shana tova; In this coming year, may we draw invigoration from the chaos of the world, may we find sanctuaries of silence, greenhouses that keep the chaos at bay, and in the pockets of order we experience, may we all find the love we seek. 

Gmar Hatimah Tova.

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783