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One Hand Clapping

12/15/2022 11:50:39 AM


As a child someone gave me a book of zen koans. Yes this is a little strange, but let’s just accept that it happened. A koan is a stumper question, one asked by a teacher of enlightenment to a student. It’s meant to provoke such advanced meditative reflection that one might gain insight into the deepest reality of existence. You might have heard the more popular, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” A koan may or may not have an answer, but that is sort of beside the point. The point is an epiphany.

I didn’t get “one hand clapping”. I was mildly bothered. This question still registers in my mind as hardly interesting. One hand clapping? Ok, bang a shtender with the one hand … that’s a sound. Or maybe the hand kind of folds on itself and makes a little floppy halfhearted clap. Great. Who cares? The question didn’t grab me. It wasn’t difficult. There was nothing to argue about.

Occasionally someone approaches me and apologizes, “Sorry Rabbi, I have a question.” Apologizes! What! I’m delighted by questions. I’ve been waiting all day for some good ones. Please, ask me. I would be delighted to explain, study, or disagree. If I don’t know the answer, you’ve given me something else to learn. And mostly I’d be delighted to disagree; questions to argue about are my favorite. Because in my experience it’s questions, and arguments, that allow for deep understanding.

The prophet Amos in this week’s haftarah asks, “הֲיֵלְכ֥וּ שְׁנַ֖יִם יַחְדָּ֑ו בִּלְתִּ֖י אִם־נוֹעָֽדוּ?” translated, “Can two walk together without having met?” It is in the context of God discussing God’s relationship with the Jewish people. It’s not a clear question. It feels a little bit like a koan. And this question stuck out to me from the text because even though the haftarah seemed to expect a “no” answer (you’re right Amos, they cannot walk together!) I wasn’t so sure. It’s not obviously a question with an answer. It’s a question posed to make you reflect.

The Hebrew of it makes the question even more dynamic. Can you walk together, yelech, from the same root as halacha, living in God’s path, without meeting first? Meeting here comes from the same word as moed, like the ohel moed, the tabernacle that was the temple for the Israelites in the desert, or moadim, gathering or celebrating a holiday. Is Amos’ question can you live a life with God without shul and holidays? Not necessarily! But a good question invites you reflect and think about your life and your assumptions. And I’ll put my working theory out there, and I invite you to disagree.

And, in truth, despite my belittlement of the “one hand clapping” question, I’ve remembered it for years. Who remembers something boring for years? Someone who in that moment notices for the first time that questions are paths to wisdom. You don’t need answers. In my koan book, I found official approval of something I already know to be true. Answers may be well and good — but what power there is in sitting and mulling over, and arguing about, and never agreeing on, some really good questions. That feels like enlightenment to me. Shabbat shalom!

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784