Sunday, October 3, 2021

Sukkot: Not Knowing

  "Not Knowing"

Thoughts on Sukkot 2021

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I will forever remember my first day at a post-high school yeshivah in Israel. My rabbi posed a question at the beginning of his shiur on that day. Certain that I knew the answer, I immediately raised my hand. The rabbi was noticeably surprised that I could think of a proper response so quickly. He slowly raised his eye brows as he turned to call on me. I suggested an answer. He refuted it. I defended my approach. He dismissed it again. This went on for a few minutes until the rabbi stopped our discussion in order to teach me an important lesson. “Harari,” he began, “Now is the right time for you to learn an ancient philosophical saying.” I gulped. “A person who doesn’t know that he doesn’t know – doesn’t know,” he said, “Your growth and success in life won’t come from the answers you give, but from the questions you ask.” I bowed my head in shame and kept quiet.


I seem to relearn this lesson every year at this time of Sukkot. Even as our sukkot today are built sturdier than ever before and our weather forecasts boast unprecedented accuracy, Sukkot still forces us to contend with the “unknowns” of life. Whether it’s the unexpected rainstorm, the strong winds which sweep away our skhakh, or the uninvited guests – mosquitos, bees or bad smells – which enter the sukkah, our exposure to the elements pushes a wide array of unforeseen circumstances into our focus on Sukkot.


As I reflected upon these feelings on one rainy night last week, I realized that those difficult feelings of unpredictability might actually be woven into the very fabric of Sukkot.


The predominant rabbinic view is that our sukkot commemorate the clouds of glory (ananei ha-kavod) which accompanied Am Yisrael on their journey through the desert (See Tur O”H, 625). The Torah described how their many travels and encampments were determined by the movement of those clouds (Bemidbar 9:15-23). The clouds provided a sense of safety and security to the people. And yet, the Torah described an unexpected problem at the onset of the journey:

The people took to complaining bitterly before God. God heard and was incensed. A fire of God broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. (Bemidbar 11:1)

What were they complaining about? The text is silent. Drawing from the narrow context, Rashbam suggested that the people were frustrated by torah ha-derekh – burdens of travel. Expanding his interpretation, I think that although Am Yisrael had just begun their march through the desert, there was a list of questions which already weighed upon them: Where exactly are we going? When are we travelling? Where will stop along the way? The uncomfortable feelings of “not knowing” plagued them and caused their complaints. Remembering the ananei ha-kavod on Sukkot, then, means remembering that we don’t know.


Ironically, our ability to accept the uncertainties of life holds the keys to opening the gates of self-understanding and discovery. Consider, for example, how at the root of the English word “question” is “quest,” and “mada – knowledge” lies at the root of the Hebrew word “madu’a – why?” Convinced that we have all the answers to life’s greatest challenges, we stunt our own potential for growth and progress. Stepping, instead, into the vulnerable realm of “not knowing” sets us on the path of development.


It’s not easy to appreciate the unexpected situations that arise on Sukkot. They’re physically uncomfortable and emotionally disturbing. But just try. Try to heed the ancient call of “not knowing” and admit that you don’t – and won’t – have all the answers. Courageously embrace the unpredictable. I’ve learned from the past that despite its discomforts, it’s an enriching experience. By realizing that you “don’t know,” your mind and soul will become attuned to a world of growth as they’re exposed to unforeseen vistas of thought and emotion.