Finding God By Not Thinking Too Much

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January 6, 2010

Oy. I keep wondering if I haven’t made a mistake – a huge one.

Something recently happened that shook me up. The Midrash relates that when Isaac realized that all his life he had mistakenly misjudged Jacob and Esau – “He trembled a great trembling.” What else could he do – he hadn’t made one mistake, but a lifetime of mistakes – as a father to Jacob and Esau.

I think I’m trembling a great trembling. Have I made a lifetime of mistakes – during all my years as a teacher and educator?

This is what happened:

I was teaching a class to adults. We were studying a text about living in the “Image of God.” In small groups they were learning the verses from Genesis describing the creation of the first human being in the Garden of Eden. Adam, the prototype human being, was created in “the Image of God.”

We regrouped to discuss this idea. Immediately everyone began to talk at once. “I don’t understand, what does this mean?” “I’m confused.” “This is not clear at all – what does ‘Image’ mean?” “What does ‘God’ mean?” “I have no idea what this expression is supposed to tell me.” Simultaneously everyone groaned and expressed their perplexity.

As the teacher, I was a bit daunted. For some reason I hadn’t expected such a strong reaction. I had arranged a whole lesson plan, which, in a single instant, was about to be scrapped. Then, from somewhere, a new idea suddenly popped into my head.

“Everyone, please take out a pen and paper. On one side of the paper I want you to write: What did you do today that you think was ‘in the Image of God.’ On the other side of the paper – please write what you did today that was not ‘in the Image of God.’”

Without a moment’s hesitation, everyone began to write furiously. Minutes later they had covered both sides of their paper.

And now I was the one left bewildered. How could this be? Moments before, everyone was vocalizing their frustration and claimed to have no idea what this expression meant. Seconds later, everyone was excitedly putting down on paper exactly how they had fulfilled (or not) this idea in their day. What was going on? Did they understand it – or not?

Apparently they understood the expression and the idea quite well. But not with their minds. They understood it - intuitively. In their hearts, there was no ambiguity.

Rav Kook writes that: “It is destructive to learn exclusively with one’s mind or one’s heart. If the mind and heart are not both stimulated and harmonized, an inner destruction will take place.”

When these students worked exclusively with their minds – frustration and confusion ensued. And it was my fault – I had asked the wrong question; I had directed the conversation only to their minds, to their comfort zone of intellectual debating.

After they studied the verses, the question I asked them was: “What is ‘in the Image of God.’” The question I should have asked was “What is ‘in the Image of God’ – to you?”

And that, in fact, was the homework I then gave them: Write something each day that you did in the image of God. They have written beautiful things. They “got it”.

And so this left me with a great trembling. 25 years of teaching – had I always been asking the wrong questions? Had I focused too much on my students’ intellectual understanding, while ignoring their emotional and spiritual intelligence? In the words of Rav Kook – had I been fostering a place of ‘inner destruction’?

Had the intellectual approach actually disconnected the students from their learning? Had they been led astray by trying to answer the wrong questions all of these years?

In my previous Zeek article I spoke about how being at “Rock Bottom” can be a very good place. I have discovered that being at a place of “Great Trembling” can also be very good. I learned an important life lesson from these students: that we as human beings need to learn in a more personal and connected way. Sometime we just think too much.

Thinking is essential. Thinking is the crown of human accomplishment. But thinking too much can actually obstruct the entryway to the presence of God.

Perhaps it was not incidental that this insight occurred while we were studying “the Image of God”. Perhaps there is even more of a tendency to intellectualize and to disconnect when we are talking about God.

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