When you heat up a pot of water it will boil when it gets to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But which of the H²O molecules will be the first to transform into gas form and start to bubble up? That we can’t know. In scientific lingo it’s called a stochastic process: it follows a statistically predictable pattern, but the individual events can’t be precisely predicted.
In recent months my friend, Fordham law professor and political blogger Jed Shugerman, has been writing and tweeting about “stochastic terrorism” (#stochasticterrorism). He defines it as “the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted.” “Stochastic,” I chided him, not going to be understood by many readers.
But, perhaps he’s right to use it anyway: it’s a word that we’d all do well to know. Certainly, in the latest plague of hate motivated murders, we need to hold accountable those politicians and leaders who legitimate hate and use it for their political purposes. But, in addition, if words like “stochastic” start to go viral it may signal a shift in mental framing that goes far beyond this particular issue alone.
In fact, this nerdy math/science word points to a way of thinking that is both ancient and modern, and which helps us “connect the dots” in many of our social, political and environmental crises. We need to go beyond the isolated incidents and see the dynamic of the whole. The pay off is that when we do so, we not only contribute to the struggle against these crises, but we start to build a society that is healthier and happier because it’s built on connection instead of isolation. That vision of wholeness, community and belonging gives us the hope and strength that we need to avoid being dragged down by our daily struggles.
When we watch fires in California it is clear: whatever the immediate cause of the fires, they are part of a larger pattern which makes more deadly fires practically inevitable. This pattern has been set in motion by global climate change. That change isn’t random but is connected to the kind of society, the values and decisions that we’ve collectively made. In Judaism, we recognize this relationship not in scientific, but in personal, religious language in the familiar second paragraph of the Sh’ma: “If you will really listen to all my mitzvot…. I will give you the rain in its season… but beware! If your heart turns aside and you worship other gods… then the Source of Being will be angry with you and the skies will be shut up so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce… (Deuteronomy 11). Whether it’s framed in Judaism’s ancient, personal, religious language or the language of stochastic processes, whether we call them “other gods” or simply greed and short sightedness, we need to connect the dots and “really listen” to the systemic patterns we have set in motion.
To take one more example, when we look at the opioid addiction crisis, we need to see that we are suffering from addiction, not just opioid addiction: addiction to alcohol, to sugar, to shopping; addiction to our phones, our football or our cars. As a society we feel empty and yearn to be filled. Psychologists like Bruce Alexander and others have shown that drugs don’t cause addition by themselves but other factors such as social isolation and a loss of sense of belonging play a very large role. We live in an addiction society because we’ve lost our sense of connectedness.
In response to all these crises, from addiction to viral hatred, to climate change, and more, we need to understand systems science concepts like stochastic processes. But rather than looking at those modern concepts as completely new, we can recognize that our ancient Jewish tradition also teaches us about living with wholeness and connection. The ancient and the modern work together and complement one another.
Minyan, for example, is a core concept in Judaism. We say that when there are ten Jews present something new emerges. Something very real and yet undefinable is added when a group of individuals forms into a community. I know that singing or praying or simply being together with community brings me something that I can’t get on my own. The ten of a minyan isn’t the only magic number. There are also times when Judaism says that three people create a community, as in sitting down for a meal together, or even just two together studying Torah. Something emerges when we are a part of a whole.
Just as we know water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit even if we can’t say exactly where the boiling starts, so when people gather together, a transformation occurs, a shift in energy that can take us by surprise. There is joy and life in this connecting together that we feel intuitively. This emergence of life is real, and when we are battling against things like hate crimes, climate change, or addiction, we need to approach them from the perspective of that wholeness and life. Concepts like stochastic processes are scientific ways of understanding the dynamics of whole systems, but the deeper, intuitive feel for living as a part of a greater whole, as when we come together in a minyan or a meal, is where we shift our way of being and our thinking.
This week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to bless us that we all feel that magic of gathering together as a part of something: a family, a group of friends, a community. And I want to remind us that feeling gratitude (“thanks-giving”) comes from connecting the dots: Realizing that our food and all our blessings come from a weave of relationships. Our blessings come from the farmers, truck drivers and grocers, from the soil, the air, the plants and the animals, and from the Source of All Blessing. Let us remember that we only really give thanks when we resolve to work to strengthen all those relationships, bringing health and joy to the beautiful Oneness of which we are a part. Let us use these moments of connection to envision a world of wholeness, blessing and peace.