Beyond the rational


This week’s Torah reading–from the episode of “strange fire” with Nadav and Avihu to the seemingly arbitrary rules of kashrut to the puzzling story of the red heifer–call into question the idea that our rational minds are the one and only way that we can understand Torah and come close to the divine.  The midrash recounts that even the mind of King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, was flummoxed by such stories, declaring, “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23).  Although rationality has been lauded by Jewish teachers throughout the ages as a gift from God that allows us both to apprehend the world and understand God’s will, other Jewish sources acknowledge that rationality has limits and that we must sometimes go beyond the rational in order to enter into true understanding.  So much of what we prize most highly in life, it might be argued, is irrational, like love, like empathy, like self-sacrifice.  When we look at Torah, when we look at the world around us, and we feel that our ability to understand it rationally is failing, it is time to look beyond rationality to a different form of knowledge that can be equally valuable in leading us to understanding.  May we draw strength from both the rational and irrational sides of human nature as we continue to struggle to make sense of all that is puzzling in our lives.