May I Humbly Suggest: Humility

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Aaron and I were driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway this summer. Actually, Aaron was driving; I was a passenger — and, as it turns out, that difference matters sometimes. The mountains are my “happy place,” and it was a hot, but beautifully clear day. I felt like we were climbing up into the sky, and I said as much to Aaron, who laughed and replied: “Well, not exactly, since we’re going down.”

“What?” I asked. “How can we be going down?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but we are.”

“What do you mean?” I responded, and pointed. “Look at those trees up ahead; they’re above us.”

“Uh, no,” he said with a smirk. “They’re below us.”

I still can’t explain what was happening. Some sort of optical illusion, like this hillside we once went to in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, where you put the car in neutral and though it feels like you should roll forward, the car rolls backwards, seemingly uphill. It was something like that, except that then we both experienced it the same way. Here, we were literally on the same road, in the same car, and yet it felt like we were on totally different journeys. It was disorienting… upsetting… and, in fairly short order, it became infuriating, as well. My fists clenched, my voice rose, and I looked at my husband with incredulous confusion and anger: How can you be so wrong about this? Why aren’t you perceiving this as I do??

Here’s the thing: Objectively, I have to admit, it’s very likely I was wrong. Aaron was driving the car, after all; he knew when he had to push the gas pedal and when we could just coast. But my experience was my experience and no one in that moment could convince me I wasn’t right. (We know — Aaron tried.)

Consider any number of the debates raging around us right now, and we’ve all been in these heated exchanges — sometimes face to face, sometimes on social media; in the emails we send, and the ones, using our better judgment, we don’t. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah, the world has clarified into an us and a them. As Amanda Ripley has written: “We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.” [1]

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how curiosity can help heal the polarization in our relationships and communities. This evening I’d like to focus on another key to bridging our divides — an essential attribute in all too short supply, everywhere: Humility.

“Humility,” writes Adam Grant, “is often misunderstood … [as] a matter of having low self-confidence.” It’s often perceived as being shy or quiet or noncommittal. Yet “one of the Latin roots of humility means ‘from the earth.’ It’s [actually] about being grounded — recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible.” [2] Or as Alan Morinis puts it: “Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody: it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.” [3]

In Judaism’s Mussar practice — spiritual growth through the cultivation of inner virtues — humility is the most frequently discussed attribute. By far. In fact, it’s taught that all of the other middot, all of the other virtues, can be accessed through this one core trait. [4] And once again, as with curiosity, Moses is our model.

The Torah tells us, in Numbers 12:3, that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” I’ve always chuckled at that line — I mean, how humble can one be while simultaneously keeping score? But the Torah doesn’t just say Moses was humble; he demonstrates it.

The daughters of Zelophehad appear before Moses with a matter of legal concern and significant personal impact. Their father, as they explain, died in the wilderness and left no sons. As inheritance procedures had thus far been explained to the Israelite people, in the absence of a male heir, the plot that would have been assigned to this family in the Promised Land would now be assigned to someone else. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son!” his daughters plead. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” (Numbers 27:4)

Well, this is interesting. The law clearly seems to refute Zelophehad’s daughters’ request — and yet, could Moses be sure? This exact case, as with so many others in the formative years of the Israelite nation, had not come up before. So what did Moses do? Numbers 27:5 tells us: “Moses brought their case before the Lord.” “You know, I don’t know,” Moses told the sisters. “Let me check.” And he relied on God’s authority, rather than his own, for a definitive answer.

Humility, for Moses, took the form of recognizing his own limitations and turning to God when needed. As my colleague, Rabbi Max Weiss, writes: “Moses’s humility is based on his recognition that he lives his life among and with his people, not at the center and not above them.” [5]

Tradition teaches us we don’t need to be Moses; we just need to be the best selves we can each be. So what can humility look like for us?

First, in moments of disagreement, when we reach what seems to be an insolvable impasse, humility is the ability to say, “If one of us is wrong — well, it could be me.”

According to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and teacher, was always troubled by the story of the Garden of Eden. “Why,” he wondered, “would God not want human beings to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Would it not be of benefit, providing the necessary understanding to make moral choices?” His feelings about the story changed when he began to consider that perhaps humanity had as much to lose as to gain in the Garden of Eden. Prior to eating the forbidden fruit, he taught, “we had a superior knowledge … knowledge of truth and falsity. All we have after violating the divine command is relative judgment, uncertainly grounded in personal feelings about right and wrong, contingent upon culture and context.” [6]

I cannot begin to tell you the number of disputes I have mediated, in the many settings in which I mediate disputes as a rabbi, in which someone was absolutely certain, fully confident of their correct understanding… in a subjective situation. And far more situations are subjective than we realize. Therefore, as Mikva teaches, the humility that comes from “embracing a learned ignorance, where no one is in perfect possession of ultimate reality” is a virtue. Cultivating a “doctrine of doubt” is a best practice. And maintaining “moral confidence” rather than “moral certainty” can go a long way toward repairing our polarization; even preventing it in the first place. [7]

Humility is recognizing the role personal feelings, relative judgement, and cultural context play in our disagreements. Humility is being able to say that, though I feel certain in this dispute, I can still hold a measure of doubt and allow that I might be wrong — or at least not unilaterally right.

Because the second way we can demonstrate humility is to realize that even in situations where we may be right, perhaps someone else can be right, too. Someone doesn’t necessarily need to lose for us to win. Humility is graciousness in victory as well as defeat.

I don’t know about you, but every four years (or five, as the case may be), I become a blubbering mess while watching the Olympics. Judo, marathon power-walking, team badminton… it doesn’t matter what the sport is — every time I watch, it seems there is some human interest story that pulls at my heartstrings and opens the waterworks. This summer, it happened in track and field. Mutaz Essa Barshim (from Qatar) and Gianmarco Tamberi (from Italy), were tied after six rounds in the high jump. In their first six jumps, they had each cleared the bar perfectly. But then neither one was able to execute a higher jump over their next three attempts. So, after the end of regulation, they remained tied. An official came over to ask them about starting a “jump off,” but then Barshim looked at Tamberi and asked the official: “Can we have two golds?”

It’s a great video; I recommend you watch it (with Kleenex handy). Because as soon as the official says, “It’s possible,” and tries to explain the consequences of what would happen, Tamberi has already jumped into Barshim’s arms screaming, and the two smile and celebrate. For both athletes, the fact that the other has a gold medal in no way detracts from the accomplishment of their own.

It begs consideration: In what ways do we predicate our successes on others’ losses? How many times in a disagreement are we looking for “victory,” and how often do we define victory as the unilateral acquiescence of another side? Humility is recognizing that, in so many situations, there are multiple perspectives worthy of consideration. (And it’s worth noting: Empathy lies in that recognition, as well.)

Finally, as we will repeat again and again this Yom Kippur: We all make mistakes. We’ve made them this past year, we made them every year before that, we’ll surely make new ones in the year to come. The by-product of our human fallibility are almost constant opportunities to demonstrate humility. Because, perhaps most importantly, humility is admitting we’re wrong when we’re wrong, and learning from our mistakes.

Dr. Richard Boothman, who served as the Chief Risk Officer in the University of Michigan Health System for seventeen years, shares the following experience: [8]

Christine was a vibrant seventy-two-year old woman who began to have headaches and then a dizzy spell. A CT scan ordered by her physician showed a congenital problem in her brain … [which] posed a risk for bleeding and rupture. So, her physicians … clotted it off. …

The procedure went beautifully, but in the middle of the night her nurses noted that one side of her face was drooping and her grip strength was diminished, worrisome suggestions that she had suffered a stroke of some sort. …

[They rushed] Christine down to the CAT scanner. If the neuroradiologist saw signs of a bleed, they would get her directly into the operating room and drain the blood. And if there were no signs of a bleed, it was probably a clot, in which case they would give her heparin, a powerful anticoagulant, and see if they could restore her circulation. Great plan. So the resident summoned two experienced surgical intensive care nurses and said, ‘get me 3,000 units of heparin and come with me.’ They ran down in the middle of the night to the CAT scanning unit and determined there was no sign of a bleed. They administered the heparin, and she improved dramatically for about forty minutes, and then she crashed. An emergency scan revealed a dramatic new intracerebral bleed, so large it was deemed inoperable. …

At 6:00 in the morning when I had just arrived in the office, [Dr. Boothman remembers,] the chief resident was peering around the corner in tears. At that very moment, the attending surgeon, summoned from home, was meeting with sixteen members of Christine’s family informing them that Christine was on life support solely to allow them a chance to say good-bye. The attending talked about the inherent dangers of heparin that caused Christine’s complication, concluding that there was nothing he could offer aside from his deep sorrow and sincere condolences.

What the attending didn’t know at that moment was that during the night, the chief resident had rummaged through medical waste and found the empty containers of heparin he had administered. His worst fears were realized. In the heat of the moment, in the middle of the night, he had seen 1,000 on each of the three vials. He had not noticed in smaller print, ‘x 10.’ He had administered 30,000 units of heparin, not 3,000. He was the only one who knew this and he was there to confess it to me. … He showed up in my office, tears streaming down his face, and insisted that he tell the family the truth.

We introduced the resident to the family. Through his tears, he did his best to explain the mistake to the dumbstruck family who sat in stunned silence around Christine for what seemed to be an eternity. And then Christine’s sister stood, crossed the room and embraced him. She said, ‘We have watched you, and you really care. Remember my sister, but don’t you dare quit. You’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of people in your career. Don’t you dare quit.’ Amazing. I cannot imagine such generosity of spirit. Such forgiveness.

Within twenty-four hours, [Dr. Boothman continues,] we had emailed the entire organization. If you worked in the cafeteria or in housekeeping or in the operating room, you got an email that said this had happened. We removed heparin, loose in bins, from all but the most essential places, requiring caregivers to access it only through the pharmacy in the future. We put stop sign labels on the heparin that said (in essence) ‘pay attention, that’s ten times that one thousand number.’

My years in the medical system “have been a lesson in humility,” Dr. Boothman concludes. “The human capacity for forgiveness and understanding takes my breath away. Patients and families are more forgiving than anyone ever believed. Caregivers’ personal commitment and caring is boundless when they know it is safe to confront their limitations and mistakes and express their feelings. The soul of medicine resides in people, simple and complex, but all capable of soaring acts of generosity if only given the chance. We are all humbled by the experience.”

Friends, these Holy Days are the time of year when we confront our humanity. And, as human beings we know all this to be true: We have all made mistakes; we all will make mistakes. Sometimes irreparable; sometimes the realization of our worst fears. We hold strong opinions and beliefs, and disagree — sometimes bitterly — with others about them. We confuse opinion with fact, our viewpoints with truth. We demonstrate loyalty and love for our ideas, rather than the people who deserve them. And sometimes we’re just plain wrong. This is what it means to be human.

But humility is our secret weapon. It’s the corrective that allows the human experience to work. Humility lets us make space for others, center new voices, learn from our mistakes, take up less room. Humility can lead us to seek forgiveness, and humility can help us grant forgiveness to others.

Humility is a virtue and humility is a blessing — it means we get to learn from others, be inspired by them. Humility, as Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, has written, helps “us to realize that we are not alone when we attempt to change the world. We are part of a story much larger than our own. When we understand our place within a Jewish story that began thousands of years ago, we can hearken back to those who have handled moments of deep pain and difficulty before us and found strength.” [9]

None of this is easy, of course. If it were, we would do it instinctively and we wouldn’t need this soul-searching day. But I leave you with these words based on the writings of Rabbi Rami Shapiro [10], and the confidence that we can do it all the same:

Open your heart, he said

Open your eyes, see the truth

and forgive.

I can’t, I said

through clenched teeth. …

I’m hurt. …

Listen, he said:

You expect order; you think you can exert control—

this is the source of your pain.

The one who hurt you is trapped,

as you are trapped

in compulsion and fear.

Know this, he said:

All of life—haveil havalim,

a breath of air, a bubble that bursts in an instant.

So learn to live with impermanence;

accept uncertainty, and your suffering will ease.

You cannot guarantee security, he said,

But you can hold fast to wisdom.

Look at the world with new eyes, he said.

Let go of expectations

and you will relinquish anger.

In their place, love and compassion will blossom.

And then the clenched fist of your heart will open

and you [with humility] will forgive.

Amen, and Shanah Tovah.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 46.

[3] “Anavah-Humility: Shabbat as a Return to Our Authentic Selves,” Rabbi Michelle Pearlman and Rabbi Sharon Mars, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Anavah-Humility in Leadership,” Rabbi Max Weiss, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 225.

[6] Rachel S. Mikva, Dangerous Religious Ideas, p. 55.

[7] Ibid, p. 91.

[8] “The Soul of Medicine,” Richard C. Boothman, Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek (eds.), pp. 107-125.

[9] “Anavah-Humility: Understanding Our Place,” Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 92.

[10] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 314.

Holy Curiosity

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Coming out of a restaurant in Asheville this past summer — during that wonderful respite when we were slowly returning to restaurants — I saw what has become commonplace over the past several years: A protest taking place on one side of the street and a counterprotest on the opposite one. One set of yells, cheers, and signs came at us from our left, and another competed with them from our right, creating a cacophony of sound in which we couldn’t discern any message at all. 

As we got closer, I saw that on one corner they were waving large white flags with only the single word “Jesus” in big letters, and dancing to songs coming from a boom box, presumably the latest in Christian rock. OK, not our thing, but the presence of a police officer indicated they had the appropriate permits, and all was well. As our path took us to the other corner, I couldn’t imagine what the “counter” to this rally could be. 

It didn’t make any more sense when we got there. On this street corner people had megaphones and posters; but nothing as large or legible as the flags across the way. Then a man came up to us with an invitation to find Jesus and repent for our sins. Okaaaay. I gave him the general response I give to anyone with a religious sales pitch: “I’m good, thanks.” But I had to ask: “Aren’t you and the people over there promoting the same thing?” He looked where I was pointing across the street as though he hadn’t even registered the presence of the other group. Hadn’t noticed their flags or loud music, much less their message. “Who, them?” he asked. “I have no idea who they are.”

Us and them. Even when we’re on the same side, we’ve become so mired in polarization and conflict that we automatically view an “us” and a “them.” We feel it all around us: Right and left, red and blue, North and South, young and old. Do you love what I love? Do you love it enough? Do you oppose what I oppose? Do you say it loudly enough? We’ve become so fragile, we don’t even need a street to divide us; as we’ve seen all too clearly, something as thin and flimsy as a mask readily splinters us into factions.  

Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Healthy conflict is necessary for motivation; it maintains checks and balance. Without healthy conflict — “good trouble” — progress comes much more slowly, if at all.

But what we’re living through, and suffering from, in this moment is substantively different. “High conflict,” says Amanda Ripley, who has written a book by the same name, “is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. … We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. When we encounter them, in person or on a cable news channel, [in our communities, in our families,] we might feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing the other side says.” [1]

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute, suggests an interesting theory for why we are experiencing such polarization and high conflict right now. Though numerous studies have shown that religious affiliation dropped significantly over the past two decades, “ideological intensity and fragmentation,” he writes, “have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.” [2]

What does that mean? It means we’re all in. It means we are loyal to our ideas and beliefs to a fault. It means we ritualize disputes like antiphonal liturgy: When you say that, I say this. It means we have a hard time listening to those who feel differently than we do; that we sometimes even experience their differing beliefs as a personal affront.

Yet our ideas are not worthy of unconditional love. People — those who see the world the same way we do and those who don’t — are.

We read on S’lichot: “Imagine how our lives might be if everyone had even a bit more of the wisdom that comes from seeing clearly. Suppose people everywhere, simultaneously, stopped what they were doing and paid attention for only so long as it took to recognize their shared humanity. Surely the heartbreak of the world’s pain, visible to all, would convert everyone to kindness.” [3]

The heartbreak of the world’s pain is not only visible to us all, but visceral, and we are in desperate need of kindness. So these High Holy Days, I’d like us to focus on how we can work through the polarization, escape high conflict, recognize and re-prioritize our common humanity. There are several tools we need to get from here to there, but two of the most important are humility, which I’ll talk about on Yom Kippur; and what I’d like to talk about today — curiosity.

Never was there a prophet like Moses, our tradition teaches. But just what made Moses so special? We know little of his childhood: Once Pharaoh’s daughter takes baby Moses out of the Nile and into the palace, we don’t hear of him again until he’s already grown up. We get a glimpse of Moses’ sense of justice when he encounters the brutality of Israelite enslavement in Egypt. But then he flees, marries, and settles down as a simple shepherd in Midian. 

The first real indication of Moses’ unique gift comes at his encounter with the burning bush: While grazing his father-in-law’s flock, the Torah says: “He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’” (Exodus 3:2-3) It’s in that moment of holy curiosity that God calls out to him.

Moses turned aside. He gazed. He wondered curiously: “What’s going on here?” He took the time to mine below the surface, and he encountered nothing less than the presence of the divine.

It doesn’t take ages, or even a burning bush, to do what Moses did; it just takes curiosity and interest. 

The first way we access and demonstrate genuine curiosity is simply to listen.Have you ever had an experience in a doctor’s office when you felt like the physician was rushing, uninterested in the details of what you were experiencing? On the flip side, can you remember what it felt like when a doctor really seemed invested in understanding? According to studies, “on average, doctors interrupt patients after only eleven seconds of listening to them explain what ails them.” Of course, we know doctors are busy. Their time is understandably limited. We’re guilty of hurrying conversations along, as well. Yet, here’s the kicker: “When doctors don’t interrupt, patients stop talking on their own just six seconds later. That’s all the time they need to explain themselves; just seventeen seconds.” [4] But they rarely get those seventeen seconds, and those seventeen seconds make a world of difference.

“The power of listening doesn’t lie just in giving people the space to reflect on their views. It’s a display of respect and an expression of care.” [5] Listening to someone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. Hearing someone’s views doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned our own. Listening is an opportunity to form a connection with a person, even if we don’t connect with their beliefs or ideas. Listening is a way to validate someone’s experience; to make personal what we may otherwise generalize, to see what we might otherwise never see at all.

Perhaps my favorite “good listening story” this past year comes from the corporate world. Kamryn Gardner, a first grade student in Arkansas, took advantage of a class assignment about persuasive writing to pen a letter to her favorite clothing store, Old Navy. Her ask? Put pockets, real pockets, in all jeans, not just those designed for boys.

Dear Old Navy, I do not like that the front pockets of the girls’ jeans are fake. I want front pockets because I want to put my hand in them. I also would like to put things in them. Would you consider making girls’ jeans with front pockets that are not fake? Thank you for reading my request. Sincerely, Kamryn Gardner, age 7. [6]

Now, somewhere along the line, after Kamryn sent her letter, there was a mailroom clerk who opened it and allowed their curiosity to be piqued. They decided it had enough merit to pass up — perhaps to an assistant, who might have shared it with another assistant, who eventually brought it to the attention of an Exec. That Exec thought: “I know I lot of things, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a seven-year-old girl (at least not recently).” And so this Exec. shared Kamryn’s letter in a design meeting or a product development session, where, with more curiosity, they turned to one another and asked: “What do you think?” And eventually, several months after she wrote and mailed a letter, an Old Navy package arrived on the doorstep of a seven-year-old with a good idea. Kamryn Gardner received multiple gifts that day: Four pairs of jeans with real front pockets… and the gift of being heard.

The second way we access our curiosity, is this outgrowth of listening: Realizing just how much more there always is to discover and know — and that goes for all of us, learning from everyone

The Talmud tells us (in B’rachot 4a): “Acquire the habit of saying, ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lie.” What if we applied this principle to all of our interactions — especially with those who seem to be so different than us? What if instead of simply dismissing someone, we said to ourselves: “I don’t know” what experience he had in life that led him to feel so strongly about this. “I don’t know” what role model indelibly impressed this value on her. “I don’t know” what knowledge they may have that I am not even aware I am missing. Admitting our ignorance in this way does’t mean we simply acquiesce with regard to a dispute. Sometimes there clearly is a right and a wrong, or one value that needs to take precedence over others. But this approach can help us to consider the people who hold differing ideas with deeper curiosity. We may continue to disagree about many things, sometimes vehemently, but the more we know about someone, the more multi-dimensional we allow them to be, the harder it is to dehumanize them. Reaching agreement is not necessary to escape the polarization of high conflict; recovering our shared humanity is.

The ability of social media to divide us into “us” and “them” is well documented, and I know many who have unilaterally sworn off Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts, citing the damage they could feel those platforms inflicting upon their souls. Political posts, pseudo-science, pithy opinion masquerading as fact. I’ve felt that way myself, and, if I’m honest, some of my posts have probably contributed to that feeling for others, too. There have been occasions — like during my Sabbatical this past summer — when decreased time spent on social media has definitely felt like the lightening of a burden from my shoulders and my soul. 

But I don’t know that simply stepping aside helps the “us/them” divide to dissipate. If anything, I think the perceptions of two sides only grows stronger. You see, when I’m on social media, I discover that some people with whom I disagree deeply, also support some of the same causes as I do. I see that they follow some of the same teams, eat at some of the same restaurants, enjoy some of the same activities as I do. In even more complicated moments, I see that they are celebrating some of the same milestones, responding to events with the same concerns and depth of emotion — their family photos and funny cartoons and weekend activities remind me of… my own. If anything, I think it’s this blurring of a clear divide that makes us uncomfortable. The idea that an otherwise one-dimensional opponent is in fact multi-dimensional, more complex than we give them credit for, even — dare I say — more interesting. But precisely this kind of challenge to our understanding of others, the reintroduction of curiosity about who others are and what makes them tick, is key to escaping high conflict. 

So how do we grow in our understanding of others? How do we listen better, begin to fill in the blanks for what we do not know? The third key to maintaining curiosity is simply to ask more questions. “Increase your question-to-statement ratio,” Adam Grant says, and add new ones to your conversational toolbox. Grant’s favorite inquiry is: “How do you know? It’s a question,” he says, “we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental—a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.” [7] Also: How old were you when you formed this belief? How have you changed since then?

Amanda Ripley suggests these possible questions to help us respond with curiosity to those who feel strongly about something, especially when their strong feelings differ from our own: [8]

  • What’s the question nobody’s asking you?
  • What is oversimplified about this conflict?
  • What do you want to know about this controversy that you don’t already know?
  • What would it feel like if you woke up and this problem was solved?
  • Where do you feel torn?

“What evidence would change your mind?” is a useful question, as well. And, when all else fails (or even when it doesn’t) there are always these three simple words you can use almost anytime, anywhere: Tell me more. “Tell me more,” can push through any roadblock; rescue any dialogue that seems to be at a standstill; open new pathways to, if not agreement, then at least understanding.

Experience teaches that “it is impossible to feel curious while also feeling outraged. … We lose access to that part of our brain, the part that generates wonder.” [9] But the inverse holds true, as well. When we regain our wonder and respond with holy curiosity, it becomes impossible to feel outraged. When we listen, really listen; when we realize there is always more to discover and know; when we ask genuinely inquisitive questions, we chip away at the divide between “us” and “them.” We allow those with whom we disagree to become human again. We may not reach an agreement, but we can begin to heal. And we need to heal right now.

As we read in our prayerbook this morning, based on a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Once two sages were walking very early in the valley and they saw the light of the morning star. Said one to the other, ‘This is how redemption will be. The dawn breaks with a single ray of light and bit by bit the sky is illumined, until morning comes and darkness is gone. So the redemption will occur little by little, growing steadily and gradually until the world if full of light.’

Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh Hashanah, p. 165

“Do not be discouraged by the darkness,” our liturgy says. “Bring the day closer, step by step, with every act of courage, of kindness, of healing and repair. … Lift up every spark you can.”

Moses found a spark to lift up when he stopped to gaze with curiosity at the burning bush. We too will find sparks when we can cultivate our curiosity, as well. 

O, God, help us to respond to others with genuine interest. Guide us to see the potential to learn, to change, to grow from every encounter — encounters with those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. Inspire us to meet not only face-to-face, but soul-to-soul — for what is a soul but a spark placed within each of us, a glimpse of the divine? May we gather sparks into rays, and rays into light, and let light heal and transform our world, from brokenness to wholeness, from fragility to strength, from discord to peace.

And let us say: Amen.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic, April 2021.

[3] Mishkan HaLev, p. 135.

[4] Ripley, p. 42.

[5] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 159.


[7] Grant, p. 211.

[8] Based on Ripley, p. 296.

[9] Ibid, p. 28.