One of the scariest things to discover as a homeowner is mold growing on or in the walls of your house. Mold causes an array of health problems. Remediation of mold can also be expensive, and might not even correct the moisture issue that caused the mold in the first place. So what’s the best solution when you’re a home owner and you suspect that you might have mold? While I generally suggest using the Talmud as a guide to living life, the rabbinic sages’ advice might seem hard to abide. I want to introduce a rabbinic discussion that isn’t about mold, but about tzaraat, the bizarre affliction that can appear not just on human skin, but on the walls of your house. One might imagine that this affliction is at least on par with the worst case of modern mold, if not worse.
Rabbi Eliezer says that if you are in a dark house that might have this kind of tzaraat growing, אין פותחין לו חלונות לראות נגעו don’t open the windows, because if you do, you might find the tzaraat, and if you don’t, it’s better to be in the dark. One might say “See no evil, there is no evil,” “ignorance is bliss,” or “you’re better off not knowing the truth.” If I have were to have a mold issue in my house, I DO want to know, and I would expect better advice from the wisdom of our sages. But just when you think that the rabbis are out of their minds, they drop a line of brilliance that brings to light so much of Jewish thought and thinking. לעולם תהיה חשוך ותתקיים, Always be obscure, so that you can endure (Sanhedrin 92a)!
There are a few things that this obscure aphorism can mean, so let me begin to unpack it a bit.
1. Living in darkness is better than living in a world illuminated with truth. If you remember the move the Matrix, which is now 20 years old, you might recall the main character Neo is offered a pill, much like the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2). He can live in the world that he thinks he knows, or, he can take the pill and be exposed to a truth about the world that will change everything! This is a truth that most people in the know wish that they had never learned. Better to live in the dark, some people think, than to be able to see the world for scary place that it actually is.
2. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz offers another interpretation of this saying in his commentary to the Talmud. He says that the more humble and unknown you make yourself, the longer you will live. To this end, one should “live in the shadows,” “don’t make waves,” “don’t stand out,” or “fly under the radar.” In less cliche terms, live a life of obscurity, and you will live. This seems to me a rather boring way to live.
3. Let me now tell you what I think this seemingly obscure aphorism about obscurity is all about. Living life when the world around you is obscure helps fill our time with intrigue, wonder, and a never-ending journey of asking questions to which we may never find the answer. One saying that I find advice worth taking, is to never trust people who claim to have the truth. That is, don’t trust people who claim to have all the answers. Instead, trust people who are in the never-ending search for the truth, because truth is elusive, and obscure.
Living in obscurity is about living life with the a question mark, and being comfortable without the answers. Because we know that life doesn’t come with definitive explanations to our ultimate questions. Living a Jewish life, is about basking in the obscurity. It’s about not opening the window to figure out whether or not you have tzaraat on your walls.
If the Torah was filled with 613 easy laws and guidelines that made perfect sense, and were timelessly applicable, Judaism would be easy, yet ultimately boring. Instead, the Torah is filled with a whole host of laws that don’t make sense, that don’t apply to our time, but we read them anyways, because obscurity helps us to timelessly find meaning in the density of difficult text.
Tzaraat might not be profoundly relevant to the modern dermatologist or even mold remediator, but it’s important for Jews. NO we don’t actually care about the antiquated questions of whether a person or home is pure or impure, but we do care about big questions. We care about curiosity. We care about rituals that we don’t always know why we are performing. Judaism is a religion of embracing the obscure, and that’s largely why we always have something to talk about.
There is perhaps no better example of obscurity enabling us to live better better than the holiday of Passover. Passover celebrates the act of questioning things and not expecting the answers. While most people are familiar with the famous four questions of Passover. A seder should be filled with questions beyond merely the famous four. The rabbis teach that the ritual off Passover requires that we ask one another questions about passover. Children ask their parents, someone who is alone asks himself, and two wise sages who know all the answers already ask one another (Pesachim 116a). We’re meant to realize that it’s not all about answering these questions. For why would two people who already knows all the laws of passover ask a question of one another? Asking unanswerable questions is the ultimate form of living in obscurity. Endlessly debating ideas is the method for how Jews transform obscurity into spirituality. When Jews question on Passover: “why is this night different than all other nights,” they don’t expect an answer. Perhaps, though, one might say that Passover night is more obscure than all other nights, which makes it different.
When life is obscure, we never stop being curious, we are always forced to think, we continuously ask questions, we endlessly seek to uncover truth, we keep growing, the conversation goes on, and life endures.