David Z. Vaisberg
Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham

Are you sure?

Some of you may remember a commercial from Ally Bank from a year or two ago where they were advertising their new “raise your rate” feature for Certificates of Deposit, or CDs. As the lead in this commercial, they cast Thomas Sargent, an accomplished economist. The set for the commercial is like a university club with antique chairs, a fine-wooden podium, chandeliers, portraits, and leather-bound books.

The moderator starts: Tonight, our guest, Thomas Sargent, Nobel laureate in economics and one of the most-cited economists in the world. Professor Sargent, can you tell me what CD rates will be in two years?

Sargent’s answer? No. [pause, laughter expected]

And the commercial continues [1].

The secret to this commercial’s humor is that we expect qualified experts to always have an answer for us. Here, the “expert” has no answer. Humor is always in the unexpected, and an expert not knowing an answer is most certainly unexpected.

I was turned on to this idea in listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics. One episode was called “the three most difficult words in the English language.”

What do you think these words might be? Some would say “I love you”— and difficulty with those words is a sermon for another day. For the show’s hosts, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt, these three words were “I don’t know.”

As easy it it might be to say these words in a vacuum, most of us have a really difficult time admitting, with full integrity, when there is something that we don’t know.

Dubner and Levitt tell a story of a company for which they consulted. Levitt was trying to determine the effectiveness of the company’s print ads. The company had paid for ads every Sunday over more than 20 years in 250 different markets — a significant investment. And yet they had never thought to ask, does spending all this money on advertising actually pay off? When Levitt posed this question to them, they were completely unwilling to run a test to find out the answer. And, when the answer came to them by luck, from an error when one intern had forgotten to place the ads for an entire season in the Pittsburgh newspapers and it seemed that their sales had not changed at all, they chose to ignore this information and keep on going as they always had. Even with proof that they had been wrong in their assumptions, this company was not even willing to admit that they had not known the answers [2].

How often is this the case for us, in our own lives?

At work, when we are called upon to answer a question at a project meeting, and the answer is something we’ve never encountered before, do we guess? Do we speculate? Do we pretend to know the answer, or say something that makes us seem smart and capable lest we appear incompetent? Or, do we say, “I don’t know, I’ll look into it?”

In our relationships, do we make assumptions about what our partners or friends or family members feel or want? How often do we respond, “yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about,” when we actually have no clue?

And, how many of us claim to know all of our sins this Yom Kippur? In preparing for these holidays, I’ve thought to myself, “I think I can count those three or four times where I erred.” But to be sure of where I erred would be an error in itself, because my actions, good and bad, have likely affected others in ways that I cannot fathom. I would like to say that I know everything good and bad that I’ve done — that I know exactly what ought to be written in my ledgers of life and death, but really, I have no idea.

Admitting that we have no idea is the first step to growth.

We need not feel so badly about this difficulty in not knowing. We are products of the modern age. Since the Enlightenment in the 1800s, human beings have welcomed a time when everything could be developed in a scientific or rational or philosophical manner. Human ingenuity brought about matches, electric lighting, and even machines that could think for us. It seemed, for a long time, that we could do anything and know everything. We could be God. The period of this great sense of empowerment — of omniscience — where we believed that we all knew so much and had to know so much, the Modern Period, the Age of Hubris, brought with it unspoken proscriptions: proscriptions against admitting weakness, against backwardness, against seeming to live in the dark ages.

But we have seen in recent times that even with scientific discovery, human beings are fallible. We make mistakes. Our so-called rational thinking can lead as much to disasters like enslavement and genocide, as it can to discovery. We learn that there are limits to what we can know — we cannot know what may have happened before the Big Bang from rational proof, and we cannot find scientific proof for the existence of the soul, or love. And, we learn that there are some things that cannot be understood in a bubble of rationality, but only experienced and felt — like the efficacy of certain prayers, or like parenthood.

To believe that we can know everything, leaving no room for new information, is hubris, and disastrous to our lives. To assume we know enough will only lead us down the same old paths, where we have survived rather than thrived. Assuming we know what we’re doing is most definitely easier, and emotionally safer, but leaving no room in our selves for change is in essence thumbing our nose at redemption.

Rabbi Alan Lew, in his moving work on the high holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, teaches that we fill life with so much that we forget silence, nothingness, and acceptance of the great mystery of God at the center of being. We fill our lives with a sense of control to fight against chaos and death, and in doing so, we glorify our own power. Lew writes,

…we’ve become a nation of workaholics, a people who have come to believe that we can conquer death by dint of our own powers, by a ceaseless swirl of activity…. We think we know how the world works. We think we even know how the mind works. We have become enchanted with how capable we’ve become with our computers, our jet planes, our space travel, our genetic engineering. We’ve talked about ourselves into believing that we can solve any problem, overcome any obstacle if we just do more, if we just think about it long and hard enough, if we just try a little harder.

But our problem is not that we don’t try hard enough. It is that we try too hard [3].

In trying too hard, we miss the moment. We miss the stillness, we miss that second when inspiration hits, when we clue in, when we have that “ah ha” moment. In not saying “I don’t know,” we leave no opportunity for “let me see what I can find out.”

If saying “I don’t know” is so important, than why is it so hard?

One answer is fear. Most of us, deep down, suffer from many fears: fear of judgment from others, fear of breaking down, fear of vulnerability. We erect barriers of knowledge and self-assuredness to preserve our senses of self, and it is for our very mental survival that we hold on to the idea that we know exactly how things work in this world, in our relationships, in our belief, in our lives. But these barriers only hold up so long.

In building up these barriers and refusing to address these fears themselves, we never learn how to deal with openness and unknowingness. When these barriers collapse — when our worlds are shaken by death, by rejection, by financial or institutional troubles, by being wrong, we realize that we were not so much in control, that perhaps we didn’t know as much as we thought we did, and we are crushed.

Do we need to let it get to the point of disaster before we admit that we don’t know and need help in our lives? Absolutely not!

These days of Awe are a gift to remind us that we are indeed vulnerable — not you alone or me alone, but each of one of us, together. Admitting vulnerability, saying “I don’t know,” and being open to our imperfections is precisely what is demanded of us this Yom Kippur evening because if we’re all vulnerable together, when all of Israel stands with each other before God and confesses everything, none of us have to say “I don’t know” alone. We stand together and grow together.

There are two critical points in the high holiday services that guide us through the humbling and healing process.

The first is the prayer U’n’taneh Tokef, sung several times through the High Holidays U’n’taneh Tokef can actually be quite sobering and vital to our process of transformation, because it announces to each one of us that we are not infinitely capable, that we are fallible, and that our fates are not always in our hands. That as a human being, I am vulnerable and frail and weak at times, and it’s nothing about which to be ashamed.

Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas writes,

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to see our human limitations as a source of wisdom, not of weakness. Like Yom Kippur itself, with all of its evocations of death and mourning, the Un’taneh Tokef confrontation with mortality is a gift. The virtual deathbed creates real opportunity: for unsparing self-examination, for a radical adjustment of perspective, for rising above the press of daily demands to a place where we ask ultimate questions. It doesn’t mean that the losses aren’t real, the limitations sometimes painful. It does mean that only once we recognize those limitations can we reckon with the promise we have [4].

U’n’taneh Tokef strips away the bravado. It reminds us that hubris is of no help, and that it is only through humility that we can improve our lives.

And once we have opened ourselves up to the possibility that we don’t know everything, the vidui — our annual confessional servicecomes in to begin our process of change.

We say al cheit shechatanu l’fanekha — for the sin that we have committed before you, followed by a particular kind of sin. But what happens when we don’t think we’ve done that sin? Some critique this litany of confessions, saying, “why would I say something that doesn’t apply to me?”

One response to this is that we individually may not be perpetrators of each sin, but that since all Jews are responsible for one another, we are responsible for the sins of each other, and it is entirely plausible that at least one person in our community has committed each one of the sins listed over the past year.

Another, and perhaps, a better thing to say is, “I may have committed this sin without knowing it, and so, better that I confess and look out for this in the future.” We all set out to do the right thing. We all don’t like to admit that while we intended on doing well, we erred, or there were unintended consequences that rippled out of our behavior, or that we were accidentally thoughtless and hurt the feelings of another. We all miss the mark sometimes, intentionally, accidentally, and, unknowingly. Rather than being a collective rap-sheet for all of  Israel, al cheit is an opener: a reminder of all sins that we may have committed. It is there at that critical moment when we think to the past year, and our hearts break because we don’t know, because we can’t be sure that every moment was one of which we ought to be proud. When our hearts break open, when we admit to not knowing, the vidui catches us, saying, “it’s ok, let me guide you, let me teach you, and let me help you have a better year to come.”

In taking part in the high holiday process, perfected through the centuries, we abandon any subconscious delusions we’ve developed that we are gods in our own right. In admitting the fragility of our lives, we open ourselves to new encounters and replenished vitality. Though renouncing our egos will not mitigate whatever life may through our way, it will allow us to greet whatever comes with a little less fear, a little more wisdom, and a whole lot more wholeness.

Rabbi Alan Lew tells a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the great mystic and founder of Hasidic Judaism. Every year before the High Holy Days, the Baal Shem Tov would hold a competition for who would get to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (they didn’t have a shofar-blowing ensemble as we do today). Blowing the shofar was not so simple — not only did you have to have full mastery of the instrument, you also had to know inside out the elaborate kavanot, secret prayers of intent, that would enable the call of the shofar to crack open the heavens and reach the depths of our souls. Prospective shofar blowers would practice for months on end, as these kavanot were difficult and complex.

There was one such shofar blower who was so intent that he practiced for years. When the time to audition finally came, and he stood before Baal Shem Tov, he realized that his years of preparation had in no way prepared him for this moment. He choked. He forgot everything he had prepared. Every part of him trembled, and his tears burst forth. And at this point, the Baal Shem Tov said, “OK, you’re hired!” [5].

Though kavanah — learned intent — makes a difference in this world, the most powerful force in the universe is the emptiness of not knowing.

May the Days of Awe this year serve as a reminder that our limitations and frailties are not things of which to be ashamed, but rather, attributes for us to embrace. This Yom Kippur, may we be changed and may we be opened, to greet the year ahead as a slate wiped clean, ready for whatever life may bring.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah.

This sermon is to be delivered at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, New Jersey at Kol Nidre services on September 22, 2015.


[1] Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Think Like a Freak. eBook. New York: William Morrow, 2014. 26-27.

[2] Ibid., 36-38.

[3] Lew, Alan. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2003. 119.

[4] Stern, David. In Who By Fire, Who by Water. Ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2010. 173.

[5] Lew, 98.

About the Author
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey.
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