How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. Psalm 139:17-18 ESV
Count – Certainty is one of the great problems of life. What can we know for sure? If everything is subject to doubt and error, how do we know what we should or should not believe or do? In the ancient Near East, the gods refused to reveal certainty about the ways of obedience. As a result, men lived under the constant fear that the next action they took might offend. Since they did not know for certain how they should please the gods, they never knew the cause of the “punishments” they received. Life began a great gamble destined to disappoint.
Contemporary society has freed itself from the vengeance of the gods, but it has not solved the problem of certainty. Men today still quake under the weight of choice. Men still attempt to excuse or rationalize failure or tragedy. Men still clamor for the “secrets” that will assure them comfort and success. Abandoning the gods has not left us any more secure.
Maharal wrote that mathematical exactitude is not existentially suited to human life. A bit of reflection is necessary to understand the depth of this insight. First we must notice that the craving for certainty is a movement of the yetzer ha’ra. Why isn’t this fixation on absolute assurance the development of the yetzer ha’tov? The answer is simple: certainty is opposed to trust. I do not trust that 4 + 4 = 8. The mathematical expression is certain. It cannot be otherwise. It is not only incorrect to say that 4 + 4 = 9; it is nonsense. But certainty in mathematics cannot be extended to the real world where we live. Why not? There are two important reasons. The first is that this kind of certainty removes the need for trust in the God of creation. My relationship with God is not built on exact certainty. It is built on the choice to be obedient to Him and every choice involves at least the possibility of an alternative. If I did not have choice, if I knew with mathematical exactitude precisely what I must do without any possibility of error, then life becomes fatalistic.
Secondly, the quest for certainty is focused entirely on me. The quest for certainty revolves around my desire for control. In a world where I know for certain how I should behave to achieve my desired results, I take full control of my own destiny. With the perfect crystal ball, the world is no longer filled with possibilities. It is filled with closed doors. With the perfect crystal ball, I may never make a mistake but at the same time, I will never understand the crossroads of choice that make me human. Certainty belongs to computing machines, not human beings.
Paradoxically, the yetzer ha’ra is equally at home encouraging my animal instincts or inspiring my search for certainty. Both lead me away from the nexus of choice. Both serve the desire for control and excuse. Neither is human.
David observes the stars in relation to the finitude of Man. He exclaims the incredible fact that he is conscious in a universe filled with innumerable unconscious entities, and in that consciousness he discovers the presence of God. David is not searching for the exact number of the stars. He is expressing the fuzzy math of God’s universe, a mathematics where being human is of more value than the infinite expanse of the heavens. Even if he could count (‘esperem from safar) them, they would not supply the answer he needs. That answer is not found in the Greek ideal of philosophical certainty. It is found in the extremely practical reality of trust. Ruthless trust (as Brennan Manning would say) that holds on to the fuzzy relationship with God through obedience in spite of the sea of doubt and the plague of disconcerting evidence. In the end, those who search for certainty will find nothing more than the skeleton of formulaic religion; belief stripped of its ability to offer anything other than doctrine and ritual. But those who are willing to risk, who are ready to trust, in spite of the screams of the yetzer ha’ra crying for more, will discover, quite by accident, that life comes in fuzzy packaging.
Topical Index: safar, count, certainty, paradigms, Psalm 139:17-18
 Maharal, Netivot Olam, p.164 cited in Avivah Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, p. 110.