Resources »
Yom Kippur - 5776/2015 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Yom Kippur - 5776/2015 - Rabbi Howard Jaffe

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no body. In the defense's closing statement, the lawyer, knowing his client would likely be convicted, resorted to a trick.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all," the lawyer said as he looked at his watch.

"Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom." He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, "Actually, I made up the previous statement; but you all looked on with anticipation. Therefore, I put to you that you have a reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty."

The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A short while later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty.

"But how?" inquired the lawyer. "You must have had some doubt; I saw all of you stare at the door."

The jury foreman replied, "Oh, we looked, but your client didn't."

Sometimes it pays to express doubt, even when we are certain.

And that is so not only because it might get us acquitted, but because being certain is not necessarily the same as being right.

In his book,  ON BEING CERTAIN: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not , neurologist Robert Burton recounts what has come to me known as “The Challenger study”: within 24 hours of the Challenger explosion, psychologist Ulric Neisser had 106 students write down how they had heard about the disaster, where they were, what they were doing at the time, what time it was, and who they were with when it occurred. Three years later,  he asked them the same questions.  25% gave strikingly different accounts. More than half were significantly different, and only 10% had all the details correct.

That, in and of itself, is not surprising. Few of us, even college-age students, have memories that are so sharp that we will remember that kind of detail, no matter how significant the event. What is striking, however, is that even after re-reading their original accounts, most of the students were confident that their false memories were true. One student even commented, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

That example is a particularly dramatic one about what we mean when we say we “know” something is true.  

And if that were only so for certainty about what we remember, we probably would not need a day like Yom Kippur.

But we know that it is not. And we know that we do.

Because we know that we do that all the time. Not just our insistence about the way we remember things, but our insistence that we are right about so many things, from our position on the Iran deal to the hurt we feel from the people closest to us who disappoint us that we insist to ourselves is justified.

For the sin of absolute certainty, and closing off doubt, we ask your forgiveness, oh God.

Burton argues that this kind of certainty is biologically grounded, and has a definite biological function: to stop otherwise unceasing reasoning and the estimation of probabilities from running on forever. We need to reach a place of sufficient certainty to be able to act. Without it, we would be paralyzed. But there is such a thing as being too certain.

Not remembering details about an incident from several years earlier is no sin. Insisting, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that those details are wrong is.

Drawing a conclusion based on all available evidence is certainly no sin. Maintaining absolute certainty that said conclusion is unshakable is.

For confusing conclusion with fact, we ask your forgiveness, oh God.

And there are costs to absolute certainty. Not the least of which is the inability to grow. There are more than a few scientists here today. As a decidedly nonscientist, I hope that I get this right when I say that, as I understand it, the scientific method suggests that we ought to believe that we are right if empiric evidence and testing give us reason to do so, and be prepared to accept that subsequent evidence may one day prove us wrong. It is hard to imagine any true scientist who is unwilling to be proven wrong. To the contrary, in the quest for greater understanding and knowledge, scientists understand that absolute certainty is illusory.

And yet, when it comes to matters that are less quantifiable or provable, we are often even less prepared to consider the possibility that, well, we may just not be right. And even if it turns out that we are right, there is a price we pay for our certainty.

The late, great, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote about the consequences of being right in one of his most famous poems,The place where we are right:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring. 

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard. 

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Let me read that once more:

 

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring. 

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard. 

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

We need firm ground under our feet. But nothing can grow in ground that is too firm, especially our relationships with each other.

 

For the sin of shutting out doubts and loves, and making no place for new growth, we ask your forgiveness, oh God.

In the past few months, as the Iran deal has been discussed and debated, argued and fought as we have over no other topic in more than 40 years, perhaps longer, many of us have drawn conclusions of which we are pretty certain. There has been name-calling, vilification, and a breathtaking lack of civility from those on both sides of the issue, and we are the worse for it. But that was not our first sin. Our first sin was allowing ourselves to be so certain of our own positions that we placed our conclusions, and the anxiety and fear that drove them, ahead of our relationships.  I have heard stories about friendships rupturing over different positions on the Iran deal, about people who all want the same thing so certain of their conclusions that they are willing to jettison relationships rather than consider that they might not be right.

For the sin of placing our certainty over our relationships, we ask your forgiveness, oh God.

But certainty is not limited only to our memory into our conclusions about big issues.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, knowna s The Tzemach Tzedek, posited an interesting question to his chasidim. Why is it, he asked, that a child can be so angry at one of his or her parents that the child declares that they will never talk to the parent again, and 10 minutes later, in exchange for an ice cream or maybe just a hug, that same child is telling the parent that they are the best mother or father in the world - but an adult who feels slighted by another adult carries a grudge for the rest of their lives?

The answer, he submits, is that children choose happiness and relationship over being right.

At what point does that change?

At what point does being right become more important to us than the people in our lives?

There are certainly principles and ideas in our lives that are more important than some individual relationships. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to ask, today especially, how often we elevate our choices and conclusions to the level of a principle that distances us from people in our lives?

For the sin of confusing certainty with principle, we ask your forgiveness, oh God.

And in fact, we can be right and still affirm that others are right, as well. The great physicist Niels Bohr is quoted as saying: "The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."

Penelope Trunk is a writer who talks about growing up with a mother and three brothers who were all colorblind. They see colors, but differently than people who are not colorblind, including her. She ultimately concluded, “There’s not much I can do when they are the majority. So I became philosophical about who is right. I realized that in most cases it doesn’t matter that I’m right and they’re wrong. So we called the family car purple, even though I knew it wasn’t.”

Whether she realized it or not, I would submit that Trunk affirmed a principle deeply embedded in Jewish tradition - that, as in the scientific method, we can never know absolute truth, but because we need to act, we need to define and confirm, we can agree on how to go forward even when we know that we are right and others will simply not agree.

The best example I can offer from Jewish tradition is Elijah’s cup. Do you know why it is there? It is not there in case Elijah arrives and is thirsty. In Jewish tradition, when Elijah, the Messiah's harbinger, finally enters the open door, he will settle the thorny disputes our ancient sages failed to resolve definitively. One of those was whether to drink 4 or 5 cups of wine at the seder. Why do we drink four? That was the majority holding. Why do we prepare a fifth? Because those in the majority knew they might have been wrong. If Elijah declares the minority view correct, the additional cup will be ready.

Of all things, we might ask, if Elijah’s appearance meant that the Messiah had finally arrived, why would we expect that the first question that he would answer be about something so mundane? Perhaps we already know the answer. Not every question is answerable, but the answers to the big questions ultimately present themselves. The smaller questions, like how many cups of wine to drink at seder, can only be resolved in the time of the Messiah, which, I would submit, for all practicable purposes, means never. And so we are reminded that no matter how certain we are, we can rarely know if we are right.

It is worth noting that we actually invoked the name of the Messiah a short while ago. That is not something we do often in a Reform congregation. A little while ago, as we brought out the Kolin Torah scroll, we sang the words “Ani maamin be-emunah shleymah b’viat hamashiach…. I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah…v’af al pi she-yit-mah-may-ah…. And even if he tarries…im kol zeh achakeh lo….achakeh bechol yom sheyavo… Nonetheless, I will wait for him... I will wait every day for him to come.”  Those words were, we are told, were on the lips of many of our people as they were herded into cattle cars and marched to the gas chambers. They sang it, or said it, as a response to the gravest circumstances imaginable, insisting that what they were enduring and experiencing was not meaningless. We sang it today to remind ourselves of that dark chapter, that on this day that we consider our own mortality, we can experience some measure of solidarity with them. But as we hear the words of “Ani maamin,” perhaps today, we can also hear their voices, along with the voices of all of those we have loved who are no longer in this world, calling out to us to be so grateful for the very gift of life that we do not squander it by insisting on staying in the place where we are right. Perhaps we can hear them say to us, we believe with complete faith that the Messiah will come, and resolve all of the unresolved questions. The Messiah will come, and tell us what was right and who was right. And until then, because we are human, we will have to live with our doubts and our fears, and yes, because we can doubt and because we can fear, because we can be vulnerable, we can live with love with meaning.

About that, perhaps, we can be certain. And about that, perhaps, we can know we are right.

(cantor sings: “Ani ma-amin….)

print
Return