As the sun set on Shabbat Parah at Young Israel Ohev Zedek a few weeks ago, Ms. Shuli Taubes, Machshevet Yisrael Chair here at SAR High School, was leading a discussion on faith with our shul.
She taught the following selection from Chagiga 14b:
ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא...בן עזאי הציץ ומת...בן זומא הציץ ונפגע...אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום
The rabbis taught: Four entered Pardes (Paradise): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died...Ben Zoma gazed and went mad... Acher "cut off his plantings" (i.e., he became a heretic). Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.
I have read and learned the words of many scholars on this text over the years, yet the most powerful commentary I have ever heard on this source came from a man sitting in shul during Ms. Taubes’ talk. He suggested that maybe Rabbi Akiva was able to handle seeing the ultimate Truth of the Divine Presence because of his life experience. We all know that Rabbi Akiva had not studied Torah until the age of 40. Being open to, and transformed by, new paradigms was something that he was used to. He had a strong muscle of openness and receptivity. Because of this, he was able to leave Paradise unscathed, in peace.
Certainly, the concept of openness is something often discussed and debated in our society, our schools and our religious settings. Are we not open minded enough? Are we too open minded?
In order to answer those questions, we need to understand what openness really means. Dialogue about openness typically centers around being pluralistic and non-judgmental. However, I think being truly open means something more than that. If we dig a bit deeper, we see that at its root, openness is actually a manifestation of humility, and even more than that, a willingness to even show vulnerability. When I am receptive to new ideas, to new people and to new truths, I am saying that I am not complete. My comfort zone is not a totally safe, secure and perfect place. To be truly open, I need to feel strong enough to leave my structures and be receptive to new voices and ideas that may change and transform what I previously thought to be true. As Parker Palmer writes in his incredible book, The Courage to Teach:
Openness to transcendence is what distinguishes the community of truth from both absolutism and relativism…..it is a complex and eternal dance of intimacy and distance, of speaking and listening, of knowing and not knowing….We must be involved in creating communities where we are willing to be upstaged by the grace of great things. (p.108)
Pesach is a night of questions. Many have said that this questioning is a manifestation of freedom, for slaves cannot question, they must only obey. I would take this a step further. Our questions at the Seder are an expression of our freedom because they show our ability to be receptive to the new paradigms and new realities that may emerge as those questions are answered. Questioning is not just for our children to learn about the truths that we and our tradition hold dear; it is an expression of our willingness to be fallible and to be overwhelmed with truths that may come our way. Indeed, it is only with the confidence and power of freedom that we are able to show our vulnerabilities. Just as our most committed and strong human relationships are enhanced when we are able to expose our vulnerabilities, so too our most committed and strong intellectual and spiritual pursuits are most enriched when we utilize our freedom to truly explore with receptivity and openness.
On Pesach, just the mere act of opening our doors and inviting every family member and every type of child -- even the the wicked one -- to our table and hearing his or her voice is an act of openness and vulnerability. It may make us realize a truth that we, as individuals, as families or as a Jewish community, may have been responsible for shutting out differing voices in our personal, educational, religious or national conversations.
On Pesach, just the mere act of opening our story and telling of how once we were slaves is an act of openness and vulnerability. And while it leads us to great feelings of salvation, it may also make us realize a truth that we, too, as a people, may be complicit in the enslavement and deep pain of others in our community and in our world.
While our daily commitments are the expressions of our greatest aspirations, passions and beliefs, sometimes they can also bind, shackle and shut out the new. Whether it is here at SAR with our incredible students, through our ongoing conversations in Machshevet Yisrael, Beit Midrash and History Socratic Seminars (just to name a few) or at our family Seder tables, we need to not only question, but to practice receptivity.
Of course, practicing receptivity comes with certain dangers and must be done carefully, thoughtfully and responsibly. When entering into these types of conversations, we need the grounding of our mesorah, the voices of our teachers and role models, and the valuable life lessons we have learned at home and in school. It is essential that they act as a strong force as our guides and our lights along the way.
However, in order to truly be as free as possible, we need to enter into conversations that may not simply validate our preconceived notions, but ones that may even be a bit risky and will allow us to be vulnerable, open and receptive to being upstaged by truths that we otherwise might never have encountered. This Pesach, let us embrace our freedom not only by questioning -- but also by listening with an open ear to potentially transformative answers.