What The Butterfly Knows

"What do we know, what do we know?"
What do we know, what do we know?

Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say these words all the time, and whenever he did, whoever heard them was instantly put in touch with how deep and mysterious life really is. What do we know? Ask yourself a question: Do you know what’s going to happen when you walk down the street today? Do you know what’s really going to happen tomorrow? Do you know whom you’re going to marry? Or what your kids will be like when they’re adults? Do you know the day you are going to die? Can you possibly? So many questions and so much uncertainty about life’s biggest issues! The question is, why? Why did Hashem design this world in such a way that we would have to live in a state of “not knowing”?

I think Hashem created the world with all its unpredictability in order to sensitize us to the miraculousness of every moment. To cause us to understand that just because we receive something every day, it doesn’t make it any less a gift, or mean that it has to be there tomorrow. To see that He is the source of all blessing. In sum, in order to breed nearness to Him.

Not only is it permissible not to know, but grasping the unknowableness of life is the foundation of humility and inner peace. If this is the case, then the first question we must ask is, what’s so bad about knowing?

Once we “know” something, it feels old, even dead. The fact that we can look at the stars at night or the astonishing variety of fruits, animals and personalities and not be constantly amazed is death. In fact, the Torah teaches that the very thing that brought death into the world was when we ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

Time and again, Reb Shlomo spoke about how it’s possible to go through the Talmud five times and still not be close to G-d. At first this seems hard to understand. But his point was that there’s a big difference between “knowing” G-d and intimacy with the Divine. When I got married, Reb Shlomo blessed my wife and me that we should never stop surprising each other. Because when you really think you know all there is to know about someone, the life of the relationship is drained. It follows then that the worst thing would be to reach a state where we feel like we “know” G-d.

“Not knowing” is very different from ignorance. Torah study is one of the greatest mitzvahs possible. This raises a conundrum: How do we go about increasing in learning while still maintaining our freshness and sense of wonder? I once asked Reb Shlomo this question. He said a person has to treat each new thing learned as a piece in a larger puzzle that still has pieces missing. For most people, every new piece of information becomes another thing that they “know” – an attainment in and of itself. But with Reb Shlomo’s teaching, each new thing learned can be a gentle reminder of how little we know – a hand reaching out, beckoning us to a previously unexplored realm.

I remember a friend once asked me, at a critical moment in my Jewish growth, whether an ant can out-think a man. I said of course not. And he said, “Then how can man out-think G-d? We make the mistake of making G-d too small, of trying to make G-d fit into our limited consciousness instead of glorying in the fact that He is so beyond what we can ever know. Ultimately the mind is just one of our faculties. There’s a deeper, more intuitive place within us. One of the beautiful aspects of Torah is that there is an entire category of laws, called chukim, designed specifically to nurture this place within us. These are laws which cannot be understood through rational thought alone – like shatnez, the prohibition against mixing wool and linen together in garments. Through these commandments we’re able to cleave to G-d with the entirety of our selves. Just because we live in a state of not knowing, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t being led.

I was listening to NPR a few years ago and heard an unusual piece about the migratory patterns of the Monarch butterfly. Every year the butterfly colony starts in Mexico and travels up to Canada. The unusual thing is that the life span of a Monarch is very short, and researchers found that the ones who actually make it to Canada are four generations removed from the ones who began the journey.

This is amazing! It means that every butterfly heading toward Canada has never been to Canada before, doesn’t know how to get there, and yet gives birth to another generation which also doesn’t know where it’s going, and yet sure enough, the last generation makes it there every time!

In our own lives, and as a people, we too are heading toward a place, and deep down, every one of us has a homing device. The Midrash teaches that while we’re still in our mother’s womb, an angel comes and teaches us the entire Torah.

In fact, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that every step a Jew takes is a step toward Israel. Even if it seems like he’s going in the opposite direction, even if he doesn’t know where he’s going, nonetheless, he’s heading toward Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, gives the beautiful example of a mother and baby traveling together to distant places. No matter how far-flung their travels, from the baby’s point of view it never moves – it’s always right there in its mother’s arms. So it is with us. Though we live in a state where we don’t know what’s coming next, we do know this: That wherever we go, we’re always right there in Hashem’s arms, being loved and embraced.

David Sacks speaks frequently on topics of Jewish spirituality, and is a co-founder of the Happy Minyan of Los Angeles. He is also an Emmy Award-winning writer-producer, on shows like The Simpsonsand Third Rock from the Sun. His last article in OLAM was “The Place.”