Numbers 19:1-27:1: The Case For Humility

"The market is on the rise!" "We will win the playoffs!" "As President, this nation will be rebuilt." Whether it is politics, business, medicine or sports, there is little news that we read every day that doesn't propose certainty of belief. In the news, we hear politicians and analysts speak with surety about world events, the effects of proposed policies, and the potential outcomes of war. We have been plagued in all sectors of society by a surfeit of confidence and certainty.
The Torah takes a very different approach to human knowledge.

We learn in Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-27:1) that there are commandments that have rational explanations (mishpatim) and those that appear to lack any rationale whatsoever (chukim). Rational laws, such as prohibitions against killing and stealing, teach us moral imperatives. Laws without rational explanations inspire humility, reminding us that we are limited and cannot understand everything.

While we must continue to interpret the tradition and make our own meaning of it, we must also remember that we never possess absolute truth. While we aspire to bring God into our lives through our active engagement with Torah, we must always remember that we are human and not divine.

The quintessential chok (law without rational explanation) in the Torah is the red heifer. In this week's reading we learn about its use in an ancient purity ritual. While it is challenging as a modern Jew to imagine how this act might be efficacious today, I try to stretch myself and understand its sacred power for my ancestors. In so doing, I am reminded that my own spiritual practices might not be as powerful for others as they are for me. This humbles me.

People of true wisdom embrace the importance of uncertainty. Is there anything in this life of which we can be absolutely certain? In short, we must cultivate an epistemic humility, a deep understanding of the limits of our knowledge. This idea is said to originate with Socrates (Plato, "The Apology," 20e-23c). The great Greek thinker was puzzled by how others in his community were so sure of their wisdom, while he regularly experienced uncertainty.

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) explained the importance of humility in our approach to the Torah:

Just as it is not possible for the wise student of nature ever to boast knowledge of all of nature's secrets....and just as there is no guarantee that what his investigations do accomplish will not be invalidated in this generation or the next, by colleagues who elect to study the same things differently, so it is not possible for the student of Torah ever to claim that he has attended to each and every point that claims attention, and even that which he does explain--there is never proof that he has ascertained the truth of the Torah!

Similarly, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, living through decades of strife in the Middle East, wrote of the importance of uncertainty in his poem "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.

Using evocative, land-based imagery, Amichai challenges us to imagine what might spring forth -- even in a war-torn region -- when we stop trying to always be right. Certainty can limit our vision and narrow our hearts, not allowing us to respond properly to objections, exceptions, and alternative perspectives. The 20th century was littered with absolutist ideologies unchecked by humility and empathy, leading to some of the greatest evils in human history.

To be sure, we all hold different levels of certainty and doubt about different issues. I tend to have more skepticism about theological and scientific principles than moral ones. I am confident that certain moral values are fundamental to living a good and upright life. Even still, when moving from general principles to specific lived situations, things always become more complicated.

This is why it is so important to engage in rigorous and open discussion with others -- including those we disagree with -- about matters of consequence. None of us understands our religions, contemporary affairs, or even our own souls perfectly. We must humbly join intersecting communities in which we can reflect, be challenged, and learn together.
To change the world, we must have strong convictions and act on them effectively, but we must not forget the importance of our doubts. The role of faith is not to move us toward an opiate but to inspire more questions and conversation.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.