I don't know what I don't know
You are now to be born
I once heard a talk from Stuart K. Robinson, an ordained minister, artist, and life coach. Stuart held up a pillow and making a small arc with his hand on one corner of the pillow, he said “this is what I know.” Making a slightly larger arc beyond the first, he said “this is what I don’t know.” Finally, brushing his hand over the rest of the pillow, a very large swath of fabric, he said “this is what I don’t know that I don’t know.” That idea lives vividly in my head.
I feel as if I live in a world surrounded by people who are so certain about truth that nuance has lost its meaning. It is overwhelming when thinking about joining public discourse; expressing that things are a bit more complicated than being presented does not always get greeted as a welcome addition to the conversation. How can we begin to rid our world of the habit of pretending that everything is clear cut and certain? Or at least how can we find ways to remind ourselves of that?
One teaching that has been running through my head in response to this comes from the first Ropshitzer Rebbe, Naftali Zvi Horowitz. It is said that he told his Hasidim that before he was born an angel appeared and showed him a tablet divided into two columns.
On the right side it offered a teaching from the tractate of Taanit: "The learned person should be a fiery furnace." On the left side it quoted the tractate of Sanhedrin: "The meek and lowly shall inherit the world to come." On the right side from the tractate of Brachot: "a person should be wise in her fear of God." And on the left side from the Midrash: "You should be simple-hearted in your love of the Lord." On the right side from the Talmud: "God wants the heart." And on the left side, from the Prophet Jeremiah: "The heart of God’s people is corrupt and wayward." And the Rebbe pondered the contradictions. Until he heard the voice of the angels announcing, "You are now to be born." Whereupon he resolved in his heart to follow both columns no matter the contradictions.
Whether or not you believe this story, the takeaway from it is deeply edifying. Those contradictions are much more apparent than we would like to admit. What might it look like to situate ourselves within the productive discomfort of life’s contradictions? How might we act differently if we no longer think that we hold all the truths? Sure, it may be painful or awkward at first but it could also be unifying and healing. There is something powerful about saying the words, “I don’t know.”
This week, we read the Ten Commandments upon which the Rebbe’s story is riffing. They are axiomatic in the way that much of our Torah is. Yet, we are not Karaites and we know that what followed the Torah gives us a beautiful multi-vocal tradition from which we mine meaning. Our Oral Torah and its many voices produces a vast spectrum of truths.
Our sages of blessed memory had long ago understood what Reb Naftali intuited those many years later. To put it simply, life’s not so simple. As we stand once more this Shabbat, wherever you find yourself listening to revelation, try to pledge to lean into this coming year with a little more uncertainty and some more willingness to recognize that most of us don’t even know what we don’t know.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!