February 12, 2018 – Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Navigating a Black Swan World

Have you ever seen a black swan?  Well, nobody really did for centuries – at least in the western world. So impossible was a black swan sighting in Europe that just the idea of one led to the term “black swan” as an expression for something that would be logically impossible; after all, a black swan just doesn’t exist! That is, until someone went to Australia in the 17th century and there they were – black swans. The impossible and unpredictable really happened. Of course, this then led to a new expression: “a black swan event,” referring to when the logically improbable actually happens.

Today, we live in a world of black swan events.  A world that is moving faster than ever and impossibly unpredictable in ways never previously experienced.   Who would have predicted just 25 years ago, for example, that one of the world’s biggest challenges was radical Islamic terrorism? Who would have predicted just 25 years ago the numbing frequency of school shootings? Who would have predicted just 25 years ago that the mental health and addiction problem of the day would be cellphones?

In his 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nicholas Taleb lays out such a case, describing this rapid change and seemingly random world we live in.[1] He also points out the effect that our limitations to predict what will come next has upon us, including incredible anxiety, stress, and fear.  We are creatures of habit, as the saying goes, but what that means in reverse is that we really prefer routine, predictability, and familiarity.  They give us comfort and a sense of control over our lives. Routine, predictability, and familiarity, however, are now luxurious relics of the past.

Jews, however, have been living in a black swan (i.e., improbable and unpredictable) way since our inception. We have had our lives turned over and over in tragic, devastating, and impossibly unpredictable ways throughout history.  Yet, we’ve somehow managed to come out the other side at each turn … so far. The Romans destroyed our Holy Temple, so we made our tradition portable through books and the local synagogue. They kicked us out of Spain in 1492, so we went east and Isaac Luria (a kid at the time of the expulsion) developed a new system of Jewish thought in Kabbalah.  Hitler (with a lot of help) tried to exterminate us, so we ended up in Israel (about to celebrate 70!) and have brought back our population worldwide. Our struggles have become blessings – evolutionary events in our survival.  We really are the quintessential “turns lemons into lemonade” people, hearkening to last words Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s dying grandfather spoke to him: “Never give up!” Indeed, we are the Children of Israel, that is, the Children of Jacob who wrestled his angel, saying, “I will not let go until you bless me!” (Gen. 32:27). 

There is something about Judaism and survival. We are, as historian Simon Rawidowicz, famously said, “the ever dying people” – but we don’t die and that’s the point.  What is it about Judaism that helps Jews to be so resilient? Is there something about Judaism and the Jewish tradition that lends itself to grit, resiliency, and coping skills? To ask this is not a gesture of false pride for one’s religious tradition, but rather awe and gratitude for this incredible spiritual path that we have inherited and choose to be a part of.

There are, of course, many possible aspects of Judaism that may lead the Jewish people to be able to not only sustain such acute change and adapt during times of uncertainty.  Scholars cite several, such as:

  • Emphasis on family and parenting;
  • The power and connection to community, especially in difficult times;
  • An inclination and reverence for life-long learning and problem solving;
  • Shabbat, i.e., appreciating the value of rest and reinvestment of energies by “powering down” weekly;
  • Giving to others, healing the world, and taking responsibility for contributing to justice;
  • Questioning and never fearing being the contrarian by going against the trend (a la Abraham himself, the first Hebrew); and
  • Faith in a world and in a God that offers us a purpose far greater than ourselves alone.

I suggest that it is not merely one of these reasons cited above that we can cherry pick to explain Jewish resiliency, but the combination of each of these values together that has made Judaism and the Jewish people so unbreakable. Therefore, when we measure our priorities and choices for ourselves and our children in this “black swan world” and during these “black swan days,” it is in fact our Jewish spirituality, our Jewish traditions, and our Jewish commitment that will provide us with the most personal nourishment, as well as the tools to navigate our lives.


[1] I am grateful to a lecture given by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in which I was first introduced to the work of Nicholas Taleb.

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