Hilchot Chametz umatza ch. 2 – Paralyzing uncertainty – Following Gods will in a chaotic world

When preparing for Pesach, one of the concerns of the halacha is to prevent us from becoming paranoid about Chametz. In order to do so, it guides us in how to deal with uncertainty. If the Mitzvot are to be compatible with the reality of human life, we cannot just be strict about any uncertainty.

One example of this is that one only has to search in places where one brings chametz. One doesn’t need to check anywhere else. Why not? After a whole year maybe an animal, such as a mouse, brought chametz there! Why would it hurt to check!?

Halacha 2:7 takes up this case. The Rambam argues that if we start worrying about chametz being brought from house to house, we will next need to worry about it being brought from another city and so on endlessly. Our ability to imagine scenarios is endless, and therefore the halacha stops us before we even start down that path, we don’t live by “what ifs”, even if it is not particularly burdensome. We only respond to doubts that have some trigger in reality.

More broadly, this guidance is not limited to the laws of Chametz. How to deal with uncertainty is a common topic in halacha. The Torah is designed to be a guide to life.

The Torah is meant to be a guide for life. It is not designed for monks in a box, rather for people in the real world. And the real world is messy and complex. Uncertainty is inherent in the world, both from natural causes and from other people’s actions. The human condition is characterized by uncertainty, and we need to come to terms with this[1]. An essential part of growing up is developing the wisdom of how to deal with each case of uncertainty. As usual, Halacha guides us in the process of maturation. We will never have full control of the natural world, nor over other people’s lapses. We can either give up on our desire for certainty and control, or lock ourselves in a small environment, far away from both the world and from other people, and maintain, at least for a time, that mirage.

[1] This is not only true of practical things, but, perhaps more importantly about knowledge, even of the most important and fundamental issues. Our ignorance outweighs our knowledge, and we must accept remaining uncertain about some of the most important ideas. The Rambam (Moreh Hanevuchim 1:32) identifies Acher’s sin with his inability to live with uncertainty, and therefore rushing to conclusions, and Rabbi Akiva’s success with knowing the limits of human knowledge, and stepping back. This theoretical agnosticism must be paired with a choice of how to live. Inactivity is also a choice, and we cannot wait for a certainty which is beyond us, and must live according to our best understanding, while maintaining philosophical uncertainty.

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