Those who know me are familiar with the fact that I am often inspired by things I see around me which might otherwise pass unnoticed. One such source of inspiration comes from bumper stickers I see on cars as I traverse the highways and byways of our communities. Several years ago, I spotted one such bumper sticker which became the focus of an entire Yom Kippur sermon. It read: “Don’t Forget Who You Always Wanted to Be!”
These days I find myself reflecting on another bumper sticker I noticed almost a decade ago. Frankly, I had forgotten about it until searching for some older writings from several years back. In my search, I turned up a piece which I had started to compose but set aside marked “Not Used.” As I read the fragment I realized that the message I’d seen almost a decade ago still speaks to me as I reflect on the world in which we are living in these days. It was a bumper sticker I had noticed not while in my car, but rather in one of the many coffee houses I visit in the Berkshires each summer. The establishment in which I noticed this sticker had an entire wall of such stickers, from which there were quite a few that caught my attention. I remember thinking at the time, oh boy, lots of sermon ideas. However, on that occasion, I only made note of one whose message summed up a lot of my thinking over the course of that summer. Now, almost a decade later, it still strikes me as relevant, and important. Its simple message: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Our nation is transfixed on events unfolding in our nation’s capital as our elected officials deliberate recent events in the arena of foreign affairs and the actions of various players, elected and unelected. I write not to promote a perspective. Each of us surely has our deeply held feelings, questions and concerns with the spectacle unfolding on Capitol Hill.
Certainly, there is, in our nation, and in our congregation, a broad spectrum of viewpoints, as there is in just about every corner and on every subject in our society in 2019. I find that I can’t disassociate that bumper sticker, which I saw almost a decade ago, from my more recent study of the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar. This is especially true as regards the soul traits of humility (anavah) and truth (emet). Taken together with the simple message of that bumper sticker, I am reminded of an important reality. In a pluralistic society, where we are afforded freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we must never take for granted the right to speak forthrightly our opinions. At the same time, it is extremely important that we not confuse our opinions, nor our interpretation of what we consider fact, to be the absolute truth. There is much discussion in our time about what constitutes “truth.” I do believe there is such a thing as truth. However, in the complicated and sometimes messy realities of living in a diverse society, we have to step back and allow, with humility, that we may not have at our disposal, all the truth, or an understanding of it.
I yearn for all our officials and the lawyers leading our nation through this unpleasant chapter to approach their task not with vitriol and hatred, but with a sense of their higher calling and purpose, to serve our nation and its values.
Each of us, as we follow the events unfolding in our nation, must listen and consider the various viewpoints, as well as the evidence. Each of us must acknowledge that our words are just that: my words, my opinion, my interpretation. Certainly, I believe that I am attempting to read everything honestly and with a clear mind, so I can speak what I believe is true. But we are limited beings, with limited capacity to know the truth. I believe there is such a thing as absolute truth.
I am guided by the teachings of the 12th-century Jewish legal and philosophical master Moses Maimonides when he cautions us that as human beings our capacity to “know the truth” is limited by our human qualities. We can pursue the truth, but our limitations prevent us from ever absolutely attaining it with certainty.
The saying, “Don’t believe everything you think,” is, for me, not merely a catchy phrase on a bumper sticker. It is a call to honest reflection. It is a challenge to acknowledge that our knowledge and understanding are colored by the lenses through which we see the world. We must approach sharing our “knowledge” and understanding with humility and respect for the very real likelihood that there is a larger truth we may not fully comprehend. We all need this perspective in our contentious, fractured reality.
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