Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

The Power of I Don’t Know

At a meditation retreat with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell taught me a profound teaching based on a Zen koan. It is to meditate on the following saying: “Where am I going? Don’t know.” On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we admit all the times that we made mistakes. We are saying we were wrong and yet, in our imperfection, God will forgive us for the mistakes we’ve made. We also recognize that we often don’t know where we are headed in the rollercoaster of life and that’s ok. Uncertainty is a powerful force. Only in hindsight can we see when we’ve gone down a less than desirable path and make changes to steer us towards a more favorable course.

If COVID taught us one thing it’s that the world is completely unpredictable and that we need not mourn change but rather celebrate it. As I settled into Elul and extensive High Holy Day preparations, this is what came to mind. Often, we are so fixated on what we know that change frightens us into keeping the status quo-even when it is at our own peril. When something in the present just isn’t working for us anymore, rather than getting depressed and giving up or pushing ahead with tunnel vision, we need to recognize that we are going in the wrong direction and take steps towards making meaningful and significant change.

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant writes, “attachment. That’s what keeps us from recognizing when our opinions are off the mark and rethinking them. To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach. I’ve learned that two types of detachment are particularly useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.”[1]

Grant writes that the majority of people when proven wrong immediately become defensive. We can most certainly think of examples of this! That was not the case for Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist. When proven wrong by Adam Grant, Kahneman said, “That’s wonderful-I was wrong.”[2] He went on to say, “Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recognize what we did wrong and strive to learn from it. We also see that we’re not the same person we were last year, let alone 5 or 10 years ago. Each of us always can learn new techniques for difficult situations or to unlearn mistaken assumptions that we have made. What’s wonderful about Judaism is that we not only recognize this, but we celebrate it. We rejoice in having the opportunity to begin again with a fresh mindset. We also celebrate the idea that God renews the works of creation each day. Every moment is a new opportunity for spiritual, personal, and intellectual growth, as well as for flexibility in how we view the world. They say only kids have flexibility whereas adults have rigidity. That is not true; we are able to change our worldview and even if we choose not to, “who we are should be a question of what we value, not what we believe.”[3]

A goal in life is to celebrate our successes, while evaluating what went wrong and what we can learn from it. Rather than being emotionally invested in outcomes, we need to be “passionately dispassionate”[4]-able to divest our personal views and see what we can learn from where we are at right now. “When you’re wrong it’s not something to be depressed about. Say “hey I discovered something!”[5]

This is a core teaching of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh HaShanah is also known as Rosh HaShinui, the beginning of change. So many Jewish sources reinforce the creative power of uncertainty and the positivity of change. Rabbi Hanina teaches us, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from students.”[6] If Rabbi Hanina was anti-change, he wouldn’t say he learns most from the next generation, his students. Those of us who took Mahloket Matters last winter from the PARDES Institute learned that the goal is to have 49-49 conversations, where one can see the other’s position through 49 prisms and one’s own position through 49 prisms.[7] Too often we see the world through binary lenses, right and wrong. Not only is this counterproductive but it also leads to developing the rigidity of our adversary, Pharaoh. Furthermore, we learn from Midrash that there are 70 faces to Torah,[8] meaning 70 diverse interpretations for any point. Ben Bag teaches us that we need to “turn it (Torah) over and turn it over, for everything is inside it.[9] In other words, there is always more to learn, and it is our job not to be an ideologue or inflexible in our beliefs and opinions but rather to be open to new interpretations.

Jeff Bezos points out that “people who are right a lot listen a lot and they change their minds a lot.”[10] We know that “changing your mind doesn’t make you a flip-flopper or a hypocrite. It means you were open to learning.”[11] Bezos is not describing a constant flip flopper; a hallmark of a credible leader is one who can invoke an opinion and stay the course amidst resistance. Rather, he is talking about one who holds a steadfast opinion only to have new information come out which changes one’s viewpoint. In life, “quality means rethinking, reworking and polishing. (People) need to feel they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.”[12] We must be able to “fail fast”[13]; to try new things, learn from them and move forward based on what we’ve learned.

This famous quotation from Michael Jordan was said at a Bar Mitzvah speech in May. “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”[14] Very few mistakes in life are irreparable; on the contrary, most of them can make us stronger, if we take the time to evaluate what we did wrong and how to learn from them. There can be a joy in being wrong, in welcoming disagreement and debate. Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to recognize that by virtue of being human, we are imperfect. We don’t have all the answers-not even close! The goal is to try our best each and every day, having the courage to admit our mistakes as they occur and learn from them how to act otherwise. Being wrong need not be an embarrassment but rather can be a source of joy as it involves learning something new about ourselves. In a rewriting of Descartes, “I err; therefore, I learn.”[15] In 5782 I hope each of us will evaluate our actions, celebrate what we are doing right, learn from what we are doing wrong and utilize it to make us better, stronger people. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Adam Grant Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), p. 62.

[2] Ibid, 60-61.

[3] Ibid, pg. 63.

[4] Ibid, pg. 64.

[5] Ibid, pg. 70.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Taanit 7a

[7] Midrash Tehilim 12

[8] Numbers Rabbah Naso 13:15

[9] Pirkei Avot 5:24

[10] Ibid, pg. 72.

[11] Ibid, pg. 101.

[12] Ibid, pg. 199-200.

[13] See Fail Fast and Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz

[14] Michael Jordan in Nike Commercial, 1997.

[15] Ibid, pg. 233.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.