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The Case for Curiosity

09/16/2021 01:00:00 PM


Rabbi Liora Alban

Sermon - Yom Kippur Morning 5782

I remember a conversation that my partner, Daniel, and I shared sometime last year. We were trying to put our finger on the exact aspect of the pandemic that grated on us the most.

Was it the not being able to embrace loved ones?

How about our inability to look people in the eye and understand their body language?

Maybe it was missing out on milestones like our rabbinic ordination and summer wedding?

Perhaps it was the inescapable threat of sickness and death or the grief from lives lost.

It was all of this. And it was something else, too. In sitting at home day in and day out, our lives felt dull. I consider myself to be a curious person who finds joy in exploring new places, trying new foods, meeting new people, and learning new things. Without experiences outside the four walls of my home, I felt intellectually and creatively malnourished. Zoom sessions can only go so far. My curiosity wasn’t being stimulated.

Curiosity is deeply human. As soon as children start talking, they want answers. In one 2007 study, researchers logged questions asked by children under age 5. They found that on average, these children asked 107 questions per hour. One of the best parts of overseeing Youth Education here at PTS is that I get to spend time with children. I love their sometimes ridiculous but almost always profound questions. They wonder about things I’ve never even stopped to notice.

I want you all to close your eyes and think about the last time you were curious. What did it feel like? For me, the last time I became curious about something was when I was driving home from PTS listening to a podcast called, “This is Actually Happening.” I was listening to the story of one woman with a condition called trichotillomania, a fancy way of saying she compulsively pulls out her hair. I arrived home before the podcast was finished but sat in my car listening. I had to know how this woman’s story ended! Feeling curious is exciting. It’s energizing.

Did you know that when we feel curious, the part of our brains that are stimulated by hunger, lust, or a sense of danger are also stimulated? When we satisfy our curiosity—when we hear the ending to a story, solve a mystery, or make sense of an optical illusion—the part of our brains associated with pleasure is stimulated. Satisfying our curiosity makes us feel good, much like biting into a luscious piece of dark chocolate (Not the best metaphor for Yom Kippur).

18 months ago, I put curiosity aside because this is what I had to do to feel safe. With COVID-19, growing white supremacy, climate change, a fragile economy, and ever-looming threat of war in Israel, it became easier to cloister myself from the world not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. The world transformed from beautiful place of opportunity to terrifying battleground filled with situations and people that make me scared or worse, angry.

I know I am not alone. We see lack of curiosity in all corners of our society. One glance at social media and you’ll understand what I am talking about. I, like probably many of you, spend hours per day scrolling past mindless images and watching vapid videos in an almost trance-like state. These videos aren’t filling my mind. They distract me from truths I’d rather not face. Any online news article these days will undoubtedly be followed by a running list of offensive commentary from people who either agree with the article because it confirms their worldview or disagree because it challenges their worldview. Most of the time, a majority of these commentators have not even bothered to read the article. In the age of cancel culture, one wrong question or opinion might mean that a person becomes ostracized from their social and professional circles. In this rigid environment, it’s safer simply not to ask questions.

Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, writes about how our society stifles curiosity at a young age. She writes, When you visit schools in many parts of the world it can be difficult to remember they are full of active, intellectual children, because no one is talking about their inner mental lives. How well they behave, and how they perform seem much more important to many people in the educational communities. Often educational bureaucracies have shunted curiosity to the side.” When teachers teach young children not to ask questions, it is not surprising that high-performing students recently studied were found to be less curious. They saw curiosity as a risk to their results.

Because curiosity is such an important part of the human experience, when we close ourselves off from curiosity, it’s as if we are denying ourselves a basic pleasure that comes with being alive. The pandemic has made me, and so many others feel numb. Maybe some of you read the New York Times article on languishing a few months back. The author, Adam Grant writes: At first, I didn’t recognize the symptoms that we all had in common. Friends mentioned that they were having trouble concentrating. Colleagues reported that even with vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member was staying up late to watch “National Treasure” again even though she knows the movie by heart. And instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 am, I was lying there until 7, playing Words with Friends.

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

I don’t want to languish anymore. I want to find ways big and small to ignite my curiosity and fall back in love with the world. Scrolling through social media, reading cruel comments online, or judging others rather than getting to know them, doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t make the world better, either. This year, I want to remember that there’s much to gain by opening myself to the complexities of people and situations. I want to be curious because Curiosity is deeply human. It’s deeply Jewish. And, curiosity has the potential to change the world. 

Our Jewish story hinges on the fact that someone took a chance on curiosity. I’m talking about Moses and the Burning Bush. The story goes like this: Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian…He came with the flock to Horeb, the mountain of God.

An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.

Moses gazed, and there was a bush completely aflame, yet not consumed.

Moses said, “Oh my goodness, I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?!”

When Adonai saw that Moses had turned aside to look, Adonai called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” Moses answered, “Hineini, Here I am.”

In this story, Moses stumbles upon a peculiar scene that challenges the laws of nature. Bushes burn when on fire, yet this one isn’t turning into ash. Moses has always been a curious person. In fact, the first time we hear him speak in Torah, he asks a question. When he sees two Hebrews fighting in Egypt he asks, “Why do you strike your fellow?” In seeing the bush, Moses lets his curiosity guide him. 14 th century Italian commentator Sforno says that Moses turned even closer to the bush in this moment because he wanted to try to understand the phenomenon before him. Because of Moses’ choice, Moses finds God. God tells him what to do next, to free the Israelites and lead them to the Promised Land. Imagine what would have happened had Moses let his fear take over and run away from the bush rather than trying to come closer and understand it. 

We may not all be Moses, but I’d venture to say that curiosity can help us find God or at least open our eyes and hearts to life’s holy experiences. To be curious means appreciating the beauty of God’s creations. Jewish thinkers across time have described the spiritual potential of noticing and seeking to understand the world’s mysteries.

17 th century Jewish Dutch thinker, Baruch Spinoza, for example believed that God and nature are one in the same. He wrote, “We get to know God and God’s will all the better as we gain better knowledge of natural phenomena and understand more clearly how they depend on God and how they operate in accordance with nature’s laws.”

20 th century French Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, wrote about the magic that happens when we’re curious not about the laws of nature but about the other. He developed the concept of the I-Thou relationship, positing that God reveals God’s self when we take the time to understand the other rather than focusing on what they can do transactionally for us. He wrote, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

Finally, Albert Einstein was not only one of the greatest thinkers to ever live but was also Jewish and a religious person. For him, satisfying curiosity was a religious experience. Einstein wrote: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know [that that which] is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

Curiosity is deeply human and our Jewish texts and thinkers prove that curiosity is also a very Jewish thing to be. More than that, we’ve also all witnessed during this past year how curiosity can change the world.

In 1978, Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko was a young scientist at the Biological Research Center in Szeged, Hungary. She had the radical idea of harnessing the power of messenger RNA, or synthetic genetic molecules that tell our bodies which proteins to make. She had a hunch that this mRNA could be used to create any proteins that might be useful—enzymes to reverse a rare disease, growth agents to mend damaged heart or lung tissue, or antibodies to vaccinate against viruses. The problem was that Kariko struggled to design mRNA that the body did not immediately reject. For years, her experiments failed. In 1985, she was demoted and moved to the U.S. for a research assistant position at the University of Pennsylvania, the only position she could get. By 1990, researchers at the University of Wisconsin managed to make her technology work, but only in mice. Kariko knew it could go further and she kept working. She slowly gained the attention of researchers, professors, and venture capitalists. Today, of course, we have the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines which both use the technology she was curious to learn more about. In a March article from the Atlantic, “How mRNA Technology Could Change the World,” Derek Thompson wrote: We can call our record-breaking vaccine-development process good luck. Or we can call it what it really is: a ringing endorsement for the essential role of science in the world… mRNA is such a beautiful scientific story. So many researchers, philanthropists, government organizations, and companies took a huge risk on a technology whose initial responses were marginal. And together, they figured out how to make it work. 

Soon after Daniel and I tried to put our finger on what it was about the pandemic that grated on us the most, I made a commitment to myself to reignite my curiosity. I joined a book club and through the books I’ve read traveled to Italy, Croatia, Ireland, the arctic, and the Bronx to name just a few locales. I’ve traveled through time and met countless characters leading lives quite different from my own. I’ve attempted to approach difficult conversations from a place of listening and seeking to understand rather than judging and lecturing. It’s not always easy and I often fail. I try to remember that I don’t have to be Moses, Spinoza, Buber, Einstein, or Kariko for my curiosity to matter. The wonderful thing about curiosity is that we never know where it will take us. Sometimes, it might simply bring us pleasure. Other times it may lead to the transcendence of experiencing a holy moment. At its best, as humanity has witnessed time and time again, curiosity has the potential to change the world.

Sun, August 14 2022 17 Av 5782