Passover and The Wisdom of “Not Knowing”
by Estelle Frankel
“Great questioning, great awakening; little questioning, little awakening; no questioning, no awakening.”—Zen saying
Albert Einstein once confessed that he had no special talent and attributed his success as a scientist to the simple fact that he was passionately curious. Curiosity, our innate impulse to wonder about things unknown, is the key to all learning and growth. It is also the fuel that drives our exploratory and adventurous impulses. When we embark on an adventure or try new things curiosity helps us overcome our fears of the unknown and unfamiliar. We were all curious as children, but for some of us this innate impulse was squelched by well-meaning but misguided adults who discouraged us from asking too many questions. As a therapist I encounter many individuals whose curiosity is inhibited by shame. They are embarrassed to ask too many questions for fear that they will expose their ignorance. As a result, their capacity to learn new things is impaired. Part of my work as a psychotherapist involves awakening and inspiring curiosity so that my clients can truly engage in self-inquiry and begin to grow their souls. This is also the work of every skilled educator.
When I was a student at the Michlalah in Jerusalem in the early 1970’s I had a wonderful teacher of Hassidut named Rav Hadari, who taught me an important lesson about curiosity and inquiry when it comes to the study of Torah. When I entered the Michlalah I had very little background in Jewish studies. I had not grown up in a religious family like the other students, so there were many things I did not know that others took for granted. As a result, I had to ask a lot of questions in order to keep up with the discourse. At times Ravi Hadari would answer my questions in a straightforward fashion; but, on occasion, he would simply look up at me and, with a twinkle in his eye, exclaim in Yiddish, “A gezuntevdikke kop!” (A healthy mind!) On these occasions he would not bother to answer my question, but I knew from his response that he took delight in my inquisitiveness and this encouraged me to continue asking questions. I began to sense how every question I asked opened up doorways to new knowledge; and every bit of acquired knowledge revealed new unknowns from which new questions might emerge. I discovered that the Torah, like the soul, was an infinite playground for spiritual exploration.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov spoke about the infinite nature of the divine. He also spoke about the infinite nature of the Torah and the human soul, both expression of the divine essence. He also taught, like other mystics before him, that it is impossible to know God with our minds. The most we can aspire to know is that we don’t know. We cannot even fully realize the extent of our ignorance, writes Rebbe Nachman, for the more we learn the more we realize how much we do not know and how vast our ignorance is. And, to the extent that the Torah (and the human soul) is an expression of the infinite wisdom and will of the creator, it is an inexhaustible well from which to draw spiritual nourishment. And humility is the key to accessing its wisdom.
Humility, according to Jewish mystics, is the key to acquiring wisdom. Without it we cannot learn and take in new information. The connection between humility and wisdom, say the mystics, is reflected in the Hebrew word for wisdom, chochmah, which is a composite of the two Hebrew words: Koah (Strength/power) and Mah (what?). In other words—wisdom derives from the power of “what,” our ability to ask questions and embrace “not knowing.” The Hebrew word, Mah, also happens to be the biblical code word for radical humility. When Moses and Aaron face an angry mob of Israelites demanding meat rather than manna from heaven, they say: “V’nachnu mah—“what are we that you bring your complaints to us?” (Ex. 16:8) We are nothing. We are simply messengers of the divine. For Jewish mystics, the ultimate expression of wisdom is radical self-effacement, the realization of our interbeing and our insubstantiality. The more self-effacing we are, the closer we get to God and to Chochmah (divine wisdom), which, according to kabbalah, was the first point to emerge from the Infinite Source, the Ein Sof, in the great chain of being. This is alluded to in the biblical phrase ha’chochmah me’ayin timatzeh–wisdom emerges from ayin, divine nothingness. (Job 28:12). By being curious, wondering, and asking questions we situate ourselves close to the source of all being within divine nothingness and open ourselves to an influx of wisdom. Our humility replicates the original act of divine contraction or tzimtzum, that, according to Jewish mystics, made room for the worlds to exist. As the human counterpart to divine tzimtzum, our humble efforts at “not knowing” create a space for new life and new inspiration to reach us from the Source of all being.
Curiosity and questioning, are essentials aspects of Jewish culture, both religious and secular. Talmudic discourse is most often comprised of a series of Q & A’s followed by more Q & A’s. This dialectical style of discourse left a powerful imprint on the Jewish mind. We see this in the classic Jewish joke about the man who asks his rabbi why he always answers a question with another question. The rabbi’s reply, “Why not?” reinforces the notion that questions are more important than answers and sometimes the question, itself, is the answer. Abraham, the very first Hebrew, is said to have awakened by means of the question he marinated in for years. Abraham would go out at night and gaze at the heavens and ask “Who created these?” (mi bara eleh) Like a Zen koan, this question led him on a quest to discover the single source of all that is. His persistent inquiry led to his eventual awakening. Elohim, the Creator and Source of creation, begins to speak to him, or within his heart. The Zohar reflects that the answer to Abraham’s question was actually embedded within his question. The letters forming God’s name, Elohim, (aleph, lamed, heh, yud, mem) are contained within Abraham’s question Mi Eleh (mem, yod, aleph, lamed, heh)? Indeed, sometimes the question is its own answer!
The sacred role of questioning in Jewish life is most apparent on Passover night when the ritual retelling of the Israelites’ journey to freedom begins with the asking of the four questions. While, traditionally, the youngest child present is asked to recite them, every grown-up present, even the most learned, is obliged to ask the four questions. We are also invited to ask as many questions as possible on Seder night. In order to encourage questioning at my annual Seder, I have taken to placing a question mark on each of my guests’ dinner plates alongside the ritual foods they will eat. This is my way of inviting my guests to reflect on the questions we need to ask ourselves and each other at this moment in time. This year, in particular, we are going to have to ask ourselves some pretty difficult questions given all the outrageous things going on in our country and in the world at this moment in time.
The traditional four questions begin with the Hebrew phrase mah nishtana, which can be translated as “What is different?” or “What is changing?” These questions are an invitation to pay attention and be curious; to notice what is happening in the moment. They call our attention to the fact that things are not the same, but constantly changing. Mah nishtana is also an invitation to leave behind old habits of mind–those rigid patterns that no longer serve us and have become our personal Mitzrayim, our places of limitation and constriction. The Seder ritual intentionally mixes up the traditional order of things in order to shake us and wake us up and get us to ask questions. This is how we unlock the gates of freedom: by paying attention, become curious, and asking questions that open up the doors of our imagination so that we can see unseen possibilities. Without imagination, we cannot free ourselves from bondage. “All freedom journeys require an open mind-a mind that is not conditioned by past knowledge and experience, but open to possibility.” (The Wisdom of Not Knowing, p. 38) Our questions open up the doors of our minds, our hearts and our imagination, enabling us to consider alternatives to the status quo.
This openness to new ideas and possibilities is ritually enacted on Seder night by literally opening up the doors of our homes. Everyone is familiar with the ritual opening of the door for Elijah at the end of the Seder, but there is a tradition to also open the door at the beginning of the Seder when we raise up the matza and recite the Ha Lachma Anya prayer. Standing at the threshold of our homes, we invite in all those who are the hungry and needy and need a place to celebrate the holiday. We also welcome in the spirit of the unknown. At this moment in history, when our leaders are building walls and enacting laws to prevent refugees from entering our country, this ritual holds special significance. As we open the doors to our homes we must ask ourselves if we are truly ready to welcome the stranger and the challenges they pose to our familiar routine. Like our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who sat at the opening of their tent inviting in passing strangers, we must ask ourselves if we are open to being influenced by our encounter with those we consider “other.” (Hey—For us liberals this might mean inviting in a Republican or Trump supporter!) The hallmark of true curiosity is our willingness to open up to unfamiliar ideas and people unlike ourselves. These kinds of encounters require a radical openness to all that is new and unknown.
In recent weeks I have been teaching a course on The Wisdom of Not Knowing and Jewish teachings on the “unknown.” In preparation for Passover I asked my students to write their own “questions” as well as a personal prayer to recite as they open up the doors of their homes Seder night. Readers of this blog are invited to post their personal questions and prayers for this year’s Seder so that we may learn from one another to ask the questions that will open up pathways to liberation and freedom for ourselves and all beings. Here is a rough draft of a prayer I am working on for Seder night:
Ha lachma Anya. As I stand at the threshold of my home tonight, I am aware of all the blessings in my life. I am grateful to have a home in which I feel safe and secure, a place where my needs and the needs of my family are met. Tonight, as I open up the doors of my home and my heart to those less fortunate, to the homeless, the immigrant, the poor, I remember my ancestors who were homeless and stateless. They survived because of the kindness of strangers. Tonight as we open up the doors of our homes we remember our kinship with all beings. We acknowledge that were it not for the grace of God, we could easily be the ones jumping fences and crossing borders illegally. Ha lachma anya. Tonight we open our doors to share our humble bread, the matza, so that those in need will not feel forgotten or forsaken. We, who were once slaves and victims of oppression, cannot forget the plight of others. We whose ancestors were exiled again and again from their homeland, welcome the stranger to join us in celebrating this holiday of freedom and liberation.
Bio: Estelle Frankel is a practicing psychotherapist, Jewish educator, spiritual director and author of Sacred Therapy and The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Shambhala). This essay is based on a section from Estelle’s new book, The Wisdom of Not Knowing.)