Friday, November 24, 2017

Parashat VaYesse: Uncertainty


A Message for Parashat VaYesse 2017
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The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. (Socrates) [1]
* * * *
And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed God is in this place and I did not know.”
(Bereshit 28:16)

The Torah’s precise recording of Yaakov’s reaction during his encounter with God at Bet El is difficult to understand. There is an emphasis on his initial state of “not knowing,” which calls attention to its significance. The actual importance of that uncertainty, however, is never explained. What was the significance of Yaakov’s “not knowing” at that time?
* * * *
Sports psychologist Bob Christina is the assistant coach for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro men’s golf team. Among his various creative teaching styles and techniques, Christina prides himself for not helping. Though his students were initially uncomfortable with his method of withholding feedback, they soon came to appreciate it. His pupils found that it stimulated them to a keener sensitivity for the nonverbal feedback of how their body feels after a swing and how the ball moves and sounds. Christina has chosen this approach because he is convinced that a coach’s constant feedback is used by the players as a crutch, which hurts them later on when they have to think and play for themselves.

In his Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes wrote that higher education faces a problem that is similar to that of Christina. He wrote that professors generally fail to incorporate gaps in logic for the students to fill in, contradictions to work out, or pauses that encourage reflection. Holmes explained that today’s graduates are therefore unprepared for a labor market that emphasizes creativity, and revolves around individuals who can successfully explore uncertainties and learn from failure.

Holmes challenged his readers to consider how they learned a skill. He ventured to guess that our knowledge and understanding didn’t emerge from being told how to do it, but rather by doing it – figuring it out on our own or with help. [2]

Dr. Stuart Firestein’s dual role as head of a laboratory and Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University alerted him to a disconnect between how science is perceived and how it is actually pursued. He realized that although only the “answers” of science were being taught in the classrooms, a successful laboratory is actually built upon its “questions.” Firestein sought to transmit the “undone part of science” to his students. He explained its importance as the realm that “gets us into the lab early and keeps us there late…the very driving force of science, the exhilaration of the unknown.” He was therefore inspired to begin a course on “Ignorance,” which is led by guest scientists who emphasize to the students the critical aspects in their fields of science which they do not know.[3]
* * * *
The Torah’s description of Yaakov’s early life paints the portrait of an individual bestowed with the traits of self-sufficiency and manipulation. He twice wrestled away control from his unexpecting brother Esav, without ever experiencing the discomforts of confrontation. Fleeing his parents’ household in fear of his life, however, Yaakov first encountered “real life.” His journey began with the realization that “he did not know.” As Estelle Frankel wrote: "Jacob is both humbled and awed by this realization. It is this recognition of his own ignorance that will catalyze Jacob's spiritual development."[4]

This feeling of uncertainty was most appropriate for Yaakov at this time. It initiated his relationship with the Almighty – a bond which necessarily begins with the submission to “not knowing.” Leon Kass noted, as well, that whereas Esav was married to two wives at the age of forty, self-sufficient and controlling Yaakov was never compelled to search for a soulmate until leaving the comforts of his homeland and encountering the realities of uncertainty. Reflecting upon his state of “not knowing,” Yaakov left Bet El in search of a wife.[5]
* * * *
In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. (T.S. Elliot)[5]
Although the realization that we “do not know” feels uncomfortable, much of individual growth depends upon it. Approaching the various realms of our lives with the open eyes and mind of one who “does not know” engenders a state of heightened sensitivity and creativity. Embracing our uncertainties forces us to realize our need of others, as well, which enriches our relationships with people and God.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Cited by Plato in Apology.
[2] Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (New York, NY, 2015), pg. 164-6.
[3] Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How it Drives Science (New York, NY, 2012), pg. 2-6.
[4] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 64.
[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 412.
[6]“East Coker.” Cited by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Murmuring Deep (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 270.