The possibility of possibility 

The possibility of possibility 

Though my husband and I spend time on Cape Cod every summer, we are not really beach people. Our idea of a good time is to ride our bikes to the ocean, jump in the water to cool off, and then ride back. My husband plays tennis every morning, while I go for walks or take out a kayak. The idea of sitting on a hot beach for hours holds no appeal. Yet every year my husband drives into town to buy a beach sticker. If I remind him that we never use it, he says, “It’s just good to have it. It gives us options.”

Usually, around the middle of our stay, I mention that if we were to drive to the beach twice a day for the rest of our vacation, we could still get our money’s worth out of the beach sticker. But, of course, we never go. By the last day, as we are strapping on our bike helmets, I propose that next year we skip the beach sticker. But even as I’m saying the words, I know that I am missing the point. I know my husband will always buy a beach sticker because vacation is not about being practical. It is about possibility. With a beach sticker, we are free to use it or not, go to the beach or ride our bikes, sit on the deck or go out in a kayak. And who knows? We might even make it to the beach one day. Anything is possible.

As the summer ends, I transfer that sense of possibility from vacation to the promise of a new year. This week we enter Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and I am reminded of a phrase I heard somewhere: “the possibility of possibility.” The phrase reminds me that there are no guarantees that our hopes for the coming year will come to fruition, that our intentions to change will succeed, that our prayers will be answered. But as we approach a new year, there is a glimmer of possibility.

For many of us, the pandemic has made it challenging to hold onto the possibility of possibility. So many things have not been possible during covid, and though it is better, it is not over. Add to that the ongoing war in Ukraine, the environmental crisis, gun violence, threats to democracy, erosion of rights we had taken for granted, and the backlash against attempts to finally face up to our country’s history of racial violence. Often, it is hard to imagine how we are going to move forward.

We can look to the Torah for guidance in these difficult times. Our ancestors also were wandering in the wilderness, too frightened to move forward to an unknown future. Moses sent scouts into the land of Canaan, and they came back with a report: The land was indeed a good land, a land of milk and honey, but the cities were fortified, and all the people were giants. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so must have appeared to them.”

The effect of this report on the Israelites was to fill them with fear and dread. They could not see the possibility of possibility. All they could imagine was defeat. They could not move forward, so they yearned to go back. “If only we were back in Egypt,” they cried. They were so frightened and filled with doubt, that when two of the scouts — Joshua and Caleb — offered a different perspective and urged the people to believe in themselves, have faith in God, and turn toward the possibilities in the future, their response was to try to stone them.

A midrash imagines God taking offense when the scouts say that they must have looked like grasshoppers to the inhabitants of the land. “How could you possibly know how you look to them?” God asks. I first learned this midrash from my teacher Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld. She writes, “In this brief imagined exchange between God and the scouts, the midrash underscores the insidious nature of doubt and how we can mistake it for truth.” She imagines the voice of God as “the voice that speaks to us, saying: ‘I understand that you were afraid. I understand that you feel small. But take a minute. Leave room for the possibility that your fear and doubt or not the whole story.’”

How do we respond to that inner voice that speaks to us of possibility? That dares to consider the possibility of possibility? Rabbi Anisfeld suggests, “We can silence it; we can try to stone it, as the people did to Caleb and Joshua when they brought a message of hope; or we can strain to hear it, to amplify it, in ourselves and in each other.”

Whether it is how we spend vacation, how we live our lives, how we build our society, or how we treat the earth, we are not bound by the past. We do not have to be overwhelmed and immobilized by all the things that do not seem possible. During this month of Elul, as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year, perhaps we can listen hard for the faint voices that are urging us to turn toward what might be possible.

There are no guarantees. But there is perhaps the possibility of possibility.

Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation
Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee. 

read more: