Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’ (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 4a)
This is one of my favorite teachings in the Talmud. Our human nature never seems to change: we hate to admit that we don’t know, that we’re not sure. Some of us would rather lie to others and even to ourselves than admit that we don’t know something. It’s as if there’s some deep-seated fear within us that being wrong is a terrible thing.
I love not knowing! When people come up to me and ask me a question about Judaism—or anything-- I’m happy to admit when I don’t know the answer. I’m grateful. That person has given me an opportunity to look something up and to learn. I even love it when I say something incorrect or confused, and someone points out to me that I was wrong. That’s the best of all! I am delighted when life shows me that I was wrong. How else can I find the Truth? How else can I be ultimately right?
There are those who believe that knowledge is power, and they’re right. But the greatest knowledge, the greatest power of all is resting comfortably in the ultimate Truth that, as Socrates taught, none of us really ever know. We’re all doing the very best we can, and I am grateful that we have Torah as a guide to help us make the best, kindest, and most ethical decisions on how to act in life. Can we ever absolutely know that we’re getting it right? No, not at all. And I love that!
I reflect on not-knowing because we live during times both of uncertainty and great change and optimism for the future. These factors are at play in our wider society, in our personal lives, and in our congregation as well. My recurring theme in writing this column all during the year 5769 has been ‘change.’ Things are changing, new ideas are percolating, new initiatives are getting set to start up in the congregation.
Next year, you’ll see all kinds of new ideas and programs. You’ll see an exciting new lifelong learning program with new kinds of classes and offerings. You’ll see changes in our services—new formats, new styles, new approaches and experiences. There will be new programming for kids on Shabbat, new programs for young adults and families and seniors and singles and empty-nesters. There will be all kinds of new opportunities to learn, to find meaning and community, to act in kindness and to repair the world. This sounds great, Rabbi, you might say, but is it really going to ‘work’? Is it really going to create ‘success’? Here’s my answer: I don’t know.
And when I say ‘I don’t know,’ I say that without the slightest twinge of fear or existential dread or embarrassment. From my perspective, the best, most delicious part of all these new programming and community-building initiatives is that we could be wrong! I certainly have a strong hunch, based on my professional training and experience, that so many of our new initiatives will yield great joy and meaning for this congregation. But if any, or even all, of these new initiatives ‘fail,’ then I will be the first to feel grateful, even joyful, because now we’re getting pointed in the direction of what can succeed for us.
I like to say that everything is Torah. By this I mean that the Torah and the Mitzvot are really a metaphor for how we live every aspect of our lives. We engage in learning to ask the questions, not to be sure of the answers. We perform the Mitzvot even while we’re not entirely sure if we’re getting it right or not. The ultimate value—Torah itself--is found in engaging in the process, in the on-going practice, in the growing and learning that happens over the course of a lifetime.
What’s true for the texts and Mitzvot of Judaism is equally true for every aspect of life itself. We engage the life that we’ve been given: we learn, we grow, we try to be the best people we can be. And a life well-lived is one where we let life itself teach us its wisdom without us imposing our “I-Know” attitude onto it. When we let life itself—with both its experiences of success and failure teach us—then we’re truly living Torah, being Torah.
So many of us are perfectionists. We’re afraid to make mistakes. We fear that we’ll be disempowered, rejected, or seen as fools or idiots. Some of us let the fear of failure constrict our entire lives. But the Truth I have found is that even mistakes, even failures, can be the kindest of blessings.
As I have lived my life with this attitude of seeing Torah in everything, I have discovered that life has so much more wisdom to show me the way than any brilliant wisdom or insight that I can “invent” on my own out of thin air (as if that were possible). I would like to invite all of us in the congregation to join me in becoming students of the Torat Chayim, of the Torah of life itself. Let’s try new things together. Let’s see where they take us. Let’s see if they deepen our sense of connection and warmth and insight into Judaism--and into all of life itself. If they don’t seem to be working, let’s acknowledge that and celebrate that we went down a path that led us not where we expected, but to somewhere even better: to greater wisdom of where to go next.
Let’s join together and build a culture where we celebrate not-knowing. The Torah of not-knowing leads us to the greatest joy of all: there’s ultimately no such thing as failure. There is only more wisdom to attain, more life and possibility to celebrate, more Torah to be found. It’s a journey that has no dead-ends, a journey that I’m so grateful to be on with all of you.