Monday, 20 March 2017

Who Will Teach Me To Wonder? - Sermon Version Shabbat Parah, Parashat Hukkat

Who Will Teach Us To Wonder

When, Jack, you and I sat and thought together about your Devar Torah we went through the piece you read from the Torah scroll. The strange tale of a cow, killed and burnt, whose ashes are sprinkled in the water to make someone ritually contaminated by death ritually pure.
I asked you if there was anything in the story you found interesting. And you said, with characteristic insight and honesty, ‘no.’

So we changed tack, and you got to give a terrific devar torah on the terrific story of the golden calf. And though your devar torah was indeed terrific, it means I’m left with the cow ash.


This tale of cow ash is undeniably odd. It’s odd to imagine there is something contaminatory about death, and odder still to think that ash from a cow, mixed in with cedar and hyssop and scarlet stuff should do anything to remove such an odd affliction. The good news is that I’m not the first person to struggle for a way of relating to all this oddness.

Here’s a Rabbinic text, about a rabbi who was alive 2000 years ago.

An non-Jew asked Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, ‘This is a bit like witchcraft. You bring a cow, burn it, grind it, take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle two or three drops on them and say to him, ‘You are pure.’ Rabbi Yochanan asked him, ‘Have you ever seen a man possessed by the demon of madness?’ ‘Yes’ he said. ‘And what do you do? ‘We bring roots and make them smoke under him and then we sprinkle water on the demon and it flees.’ Said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘let your ears hear what you say with your mouth. It is the same for this spirit of uncleanness [and he explains the odd ritual away. But then the Midrash continues]
When the non-Jew left, Rabbi Yochanan’s students said to their master, ‘Master, you pushed off this man with a straw, what explanation will you give to us?’ he said to them, ‘By your life, it is not that death defiles, nor that this water purifies. The Holy Blessed One says, ‘I have laid down a Hok - a decree [it’s not to be understood, it’s something to be followed even though you cannot understand it].[1]

The key word is the Hebrew word hok - something that cannot be understood and isn;t designed to be understood. The ritual of the cow is a Hok. The fact that it doesn’t make rational sense isn’t because it’s stupid and the fact that we - not even Jack - can understand it - isn’t because we - and certainly not Jack - are stupid. Rather this hok is something not to be understood.

I’m interested in what it means to have things, in our lives that we understand, to have things in our lives that we strive to understand and - most of all - what it means to make a space for things that cannot be understood.

I’m aware suggesting we make space for things which cannot be understood is counter-cultural, especially for a Synagogue full of people who understand so many things and quest to understand so much more.

I’ve nothing against the quest to understand. In fact questing to understand the world and everything in it is one of the most exquisite things a person can do with their lives.

I get that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each one a direct descendent from one single zygote - that’s extraordinary.
I get that every atom in every one of these cells was already present at the very beginning of time and that therefore each of my 37 trillion cells is, in some sense, recycled star dust.

There is nothing wrong with the quest for greater and greater knowledge, and if I had one thing to say to neurologists attempting to understand the nature of brain-damage, or civil engineers attempting to work out how best to build buildings that can withstand the destructive power of an earthquake it would be to say, go, go, go, lives depend on your passion to understand more.
But ...
There is a but.

The but is that as we understand life we have this tendency to turn life into bits of data we can compute, manipulate and control.
And even if there is something out there we can’t understand yet, if we think that this thing is there capable of being understood if we just tried a little harder, we start treating everything in life as a bit of data that can be manipulated and controlled.
We start to think that life can be calibrated and controlled.
And here’s the scary thing for people who like to calibrate and control.

The really important things in life are not quantifiable, they are not measurable and they are certainly not capable of being manipulated like pixels in a computer programme or the spread of bonds and stocks in our investment portfolios.
And the reason the really important things in life are not capable of being manipulated is not that we aren’t clever enough yet.
It’s because the really important stuff in life is beyond control.

The gift of love is not manipulable.
The ability to feel joy isn’t controllable.
You can’t measure artistic worth on a spreadsheet.

Wonder isn’t something that can be programmed.
Really this is all about our ability to appreciate wonder.

There are loads of people telling us to try to understand more, and control more, and learn more. There are loads of people telling us if only we tried a little harder we would do better in these exams or that six-month performance review and all the rest of it.
But who will teach us to wonder?

Who will teach us to appreciate that the world is not ours to control.
It’s ours to protect and serve.
Who will teach us that time isn’t simply a unit of production to be set into a productivity spreadsheet, but rather the essence of human life; time is to be celebrated and marked, not put to the service of commercial gain.

We’ve got the balance wrong - too much seeking to control and not enough wonder about that which is beyond control.
We need more people to teach us about wonder.
It’s a subtle point I’m trying to make,
It’s one thing to work to wipe out polio, or tackle malaria or cure cancer, but somewhere we, in our comfortable Western existence, seem in danger of forgetting that death isn’t something to be eradicated as if it were an infectious disease. Death is at the very heart of what it means to mortal. We can eat more fruit and veg, exercise, treat and cure more and more disease, but we can’t escape what it means to be mortal, unless we turn ourselves into something no longer human. 

Death is a wonder, a Hok, something to defeat understanding. That’s why death is so scary - not because we can’t understand it yet, but because it is beyond understanding.
That’s why we need a ritual to help us deal with our inability to understand death.
That’s why that ritual, itself, needs to escape understanding.
That’s why we need a Hok featuring cow’s ash.

And here’s the real problem of forgetting about wonder and thinking everything falls into the twin categories of controllable and almost controllable;
by promoting the notion of control we strip out our appreciation of wonder from the world.
If we say the really important things in life are the things we can measure and control we are in danger of arriving at our deathbed proud, or ashamed, of the amount of money in our bank accounts.
And no-one arrives at their deathbed counting how much money they have in their bank accounts.
It’s really not about the stuff we can measure.
It’s really about our ability to wonder.

I did something I don’t usually do, when thinking about this sermon.
I googled the question, ‘who will teach me to wonder?’
And there, answer number three was a link to Psalms 119:27.

Let me tell you about Psalms 119:27.

It’s not an easy verse to translate, something like this;
Bring me to understand the path of what you demand of me and I will chat with your wonders.

The leading Rabbinic commentary Malbim points out the importance of it being the PATH of the precepts. It is, for Malbim the path up Mount Sinai, the path that leads beyond human understanding.
We seek an understand of that we know we cannot understand.
It’s a little paradoxical.
We address ourselves to the path up the mountain knowing that there are truths beyond human grasp.
And the reward is we get to be in 'siach' - in conversation - with wonder, with mystery.
We don’t get to understand, we certainly don’t get to control.
But we do get, in fleeting moments of insight, a sense of being in conversation with that which is wonder.

The great American writer, William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, tries to explain the sort of momentary encountering of the ineffable that is at the heart of great moments of religious insight. The word James uses is noetic - these are kinds of understanding that cannot be spelt out in letters, they cannot be published as respectable scientific literature or made subject to double blind testing of hypotheses and controls.
Noetic experiences are beyond language, beyond measurement, they are experiences of being in siach - being in conversation with wonder.
When an artist, when asked to explain their painting responds, ‘I can’t really explain it in words, if I could have explained it in words I wouldn’t have had to paint it.’ She is talking about a noetic truth.
And noetic truths might just allow us to make sense of our lives in ways even more important than the quest for measurable knowledge.

So, Jack, all of us, let us do lots of great, inspiring, life-saving science. But let us also keep a place for wonder. Let’s keep looking for opportunities to walk paths that don’t reveal all their secrets even under the most powerful of microscopes. Let’s lift up our eyes to wonder in the hope of a siach - a conversation with that which is noetic - beyond.

Because if we lose the ability to wonder, if we lose the ability to appreciate that which cannot be comprehended, we lose the ability to treasure all that is most special about our humanity.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Bemidbar Rabbah 19:8

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