God has created in us an incredible species.
As Psalm 139 puts it, we are “awesomely, wondrously made.”
Using our brains and our tenacity, we have been able to do amazing things — making astounding progress in technology and medical science and finding solutions for all kinds of human problems. Indeed, there is a bias, in the modern world, that we can solve everything.
But, as Psalm 92 observes, not only are God’s works “great,” they are also remarkably complex. “How great are your works, O Lord! Your designs are so subtle.”
Subtle and complex and generally full of surprises. Some of the problems we face turn out to be continuously perplexing. Though we could send humans to the moon, problems like poverty, intolerance, substance abuse or psychological dysfunction resist submission to our brilliance. Though we are eternally optimistic, there are some problems that seem beyond us. In addition to our other many talents, we also have to practice patience.
Most religious faiths work on this frontier between hope and failure, urging us to do what we can but also teaching us how to live in an imperfect world. We want to be methodical, seeing a problem and fixing it permanently, but that is not the way the world works, and we face frustration on a most profound level.
Take for example the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. There are a lot of proposed solutions, and each proposal provides relief to some elements of the very complex situation. But, what if none of the proposed solutions will really bring peace and justice? This past summer, I attended a seminar in Jerusalem that focused on the continuing conflict and sought answers. The seminar was arranged by a well-known peace-maker and tolerance-inspirer, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and we heard from advocates for all the proposed solutions — for 10 days. At the end of the seminar, my sense and the sense of many of the experts was that not a single proposal can provide a viable, long-term fix. Not one seems to be able to usher in the peace and prosperity and human rights that should be. Can our human fix-it mentality accept such an intractable problem?
In our messianic drive to fix the world, we want to figure out the fix now. And, given the many problems on our worldwide list, there is a limit to the mental energy we can devote to this or any problem. This creates an even greater sense of urgency and an impatience when a problem refuses to be solved.
What if the conflict between Israel and the Arabs cannot be fixed? What if we are looking at the absolute impossibility of a real solution in the short term? Is it possible that, in the absence of a solution, the best current answer is merely survival? I wonder if we need to lengthen our attention spans and think of this as a 50- or 100-year problem and, in the meantime, accept the imperfect and dangerous impasse as currently inevitable. Our impatience is not a good reason to impose a less than adequate solution. What if a rushed solution — pushed through because we cannot stand to wait any longer — would cause even more danger and tragedy?
In a sense, I am speaking of our communal attention span. For some things, we can muster attention spans of great abundance. But, there are limits, and when we read the limits of our patience, there is a tendency to lash out in anger at the issue and the people involved. We get mad at them for their intractable problem — for taking our time and attention and not finding a solution.
At such moments — moments of mental fatigue and a depletion of our attention spans, we often resort to oversimplification and spit out comments like, “Well, we just have to ...”
I believe that any statement beginning with “Well, we just have to ...” is inevitably impatient and oversimplified: more an emotional response to frustration than a serious opinion on a complex issue. And I include myself as a practitioner of this particular sin. Let us beware the sin of oversimplification simply because our attention spans are worn out. Real problems deserve our best thinking.
Everyone wants a perfect world. We wish we could solve every problem. But, in the absence of the Messianic Kingdom, we are left with problems and the very real suffering they bring. In my faith, I find the words of the ancient sage Rabbi Tarphon to be helpful. “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.” (Avot 2.21) Of course, we need to keep working to solve the problems of the world, but we also need to balance our zeal for perfection with patience, compassion and faith.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.