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The Value of Saying "I Don't Know"

Baal Shem Tov Stories: Knowledge & Without the Coming World (Buber, 1947, pp. 62-63)

* The Baal Shem said: “When I reach a high rung of knowledge, I know that not a single letter of the teachings is within me, and that I have not taken a single step in the service of God.”

* Once the spirit of the Baal Shem was so oppressed that it seemed to him he would have no part in the coming world. Then he said to himself: “If I love God, what need have I of a coming world!”

These two stories mirror each other. They both deal with a profound loss coming at the end of long period of struggle. But they also both herald a turning point of cosmic gain.

Knowledge here means knowledge of the Absolute, but the Absolute is just that. When compared with infinity the vastness of the observable universe is no different to a grain of sand. From the perspective of the Infinite, a photon emitted at the moment of creation is no closer than one leaving your screen now. We are fooled at the beginning. We only fathom the vastness after expending great effort. But “when we reach a high level of knowledge” the infinite expanse of possibility opens itself up to us and we are dwarfed by the unknown that we now see before us. This unknowing is the first stage true knowledge.

But do not be disheartened. Loss, even of the world to come, is absolute gain, for now you have nothing to fear. What you have is the action to do and the path to take. Here is the treasure and Now is the coming world. The Yid Hakodosh said: “I would be glad to give up my share in this world and the next for a single ounce of Yiddishkeit.”

In the realm of the Absolute all is completely hidden therefore the Zohar says "and since man asks, and examines, and enquires to know each level, from one to the next, until the end of all levels, and when he reaches there: "WHAT!?" What have you learned, what have you seen, what have you uncovered, is not everything concealed as it was in the beginning?" But "what", says the Zohar, is the Divine Presence, and reaching that question is meeting the Divine face to face. A Zen master used to tell people who would come to him for teaching: "only don't know". It is through "don't know" that your mind opens to true knowledge.


Cover Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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