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Religious Risk

No one knows the future.

As a result, we organize our lives around taking more or less risk; risk is inextricably linked to navigating the unknown, which is the reason the future is unknown. There is risk in our career path, who we marry, where we live, how we invest, what we consume, and how active we choose to be. The entire financial industry, insurance industry, and arguably the entire religious world are organized around risk; we live our lives in the specter of the consequences of wickedness and wrongdoing.

Is it a good time or a bad time to buy a house or invest? People have been saying it’s one or the other for a long time, and they’ll be right eventually. There is an inherent risk factor in an informed decision, and you’d be foolish to ignore it.

Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything. It can be counterintuitive and easy to ignore, especially when no one else has noticed it either. These can be more or less obvious at different times in our lives – but they’re always there. The riskiest stuff is always what you don’t see coming, and you won’t see anything coming if your eyes are wide shut.

The Flood story highlights another kind of risk – religious risk.

Our typical analysis of the flood story often focuses on Noah, the protagonist, and what he did or didn’t do. On occasion, we talk about what the antagonists did so wrong to corrupt their world so irredeemably. 

But let’s consider something Noah’s audience notably did not do. They didn’t listen, and the world was lost.

The Midrash suggests that for the hundred and twenty years he spent building the Ark, people would ask Noah what he was doing, and he would reply that God had informed him that God was bringing a great flood, and they would laugh him off as some crazy old man. 

Imagine sitting next to a heart surgeon on a long flight, and after getting to know you a little, watching you eat and drink the entire flight, he suggests that your habits predispose you to a greater risk of heart disease if you don’t tighten up your diet and develop a good exercise habit. How arrogant and stupid would you need to be to ignore the doctor and carry on just the same?

The very least you should do is get checked up and consider the gravity of the man on the plane’s word and the severity of the consequences of doing nothing. What if there’s a chance he’s right? That alone should get you to pay more attention.

But Noah’s world did nothing.

On the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have considered the importance and urgency of Teshuva. We read the story of Jonah, whom God instructs to go to the corrupt city of Nineveh, and the entire Assyrian empire falls in line and makes amends on the back of just one sentence, and the star of Nineveh shines once more. 

In sharp contrast, we read this story, and Noah couldn’t get even one person to see the error in their ways.

God promised not to flood the world ever again when the world wouldn’t listen, but that’s just what God did. Humans didn’t change, they stayed the same! We are the same species of human, and humans are endowed with the property of not listening, and you ought to sit up a little and wonder what you important thing might be ignoring.

There have always been incidences of tragedy – that’s the nature of risk. Who it happens to, and how it happens, is a question of destiny, fate, and providence. But we live in a connected world – there are no local tragedies anymore, and we remember them longer and more clearly. How many times have you seen the World Trade Center footage?

It’s easy and tempting for leaders to blame whatever is culturally in vogue to attack – on a lack of cohesion and unity, on talking in shul, or on women.

And the truth is far scarier. 

It’s that we simply have no idea.

And in the face of that shocking truth, we ought to face the world with a little more humility. As the Mesilas Yesharim explains, self-assessment requires us to accurately gauge where we are and scrutinize where we are going – יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו ויְמַשְׁמֵשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. If you can’t do that, or worse, think you can but are mistaken, you have a real problem. 

We need to be tuned in to ourselves and our environments, and even in the best case, it’s ideal to have friends and mentors to help guide us along the way – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר.

We’re probably not a society of corrupt and wicked sinners, and you probably don’t need to listen too closely to anyone with that message. But we can do without excessive pride or self-confidence, and we can always dig a little deeper because what if there’s something we could have done better?

So with good reason, the Rambam’s universal prescription for bad things and hard times is Teshuva; it’s always a good time to make amends and resolve to do better and be better – just in case!