By Simon Jacobson
A few years ago, at a Passover Seder, I was seated near a
French Jew who, during the course of his lifelong spiritual
search, had discovered Zen. Amazingly hale and spirited at
70, Julian was a self-proclaimed atheist whose primary belief
was in nature, a belief supported by many years following
the ways of Native American life on Indian reservations in
I sensed that Julian was resisting any attempt to be engaged
in the discussions at the table about Judaism. As we began
conversing, he shared with me almost to demonstrate
his antipathy to anything Jewish that he was always
absorbed by Zen thought, particularly its koans (theoretical
mental exercises). There were, however, two koans that continued
to elude him:
Koan #1: "A hand slips down into the water, but the
sleeve does not get wet. How?"
Koan #2: "A bull crashes through a window. Its head,
body and legs come crashing through, but not its tail. Why?"
As the evening progressed, and we both had some Passover
wine (him more than me), I felt an opportunity to respond
to Julian's dilemma. I asked him if he was familiar with the
original and foremost 'Koan' of them all. The Hebrew word
"Kohen" means priest, referring to the Kohanic priests
who served in the Holy Temple.
In the Holy Temple, there were two types of service: The
service of the Kohanim and that of the Levites. The Levites
served G-d through song, each day composing a new melody praising
G-d. The Kohanim served in silence. However great the power
of song, it cannot compare to the power of silence. The hush
of the Kohanic service accessed the most intimate dimension
of the Divine, whose intensity cannot be contained even by
the most beautiful melody.
From our limited perspective, sound is louder than silence.
From the perspective of true Reality, however, silence is
more powerful than sound. Not because G-d is closer to silence
than He is to sound, but because silence allows us the ability
to rise above our limited perception and senses to experience
Now, I said to Julian, let's get back to your first koan:
"A hand slips under water, but the sleeve does not get
wet. How?" Can water get wet? No. Because water is wetness.
From our limited perspective a dry hand and sleeve that slip
into water get wet, because dry and wet are two different
states. Reality, however, is neither dry nor wet and therefore
includes and integrates both. When we sublimate ourselves
("tevilah," submersion in a mikvah, are the same
letters as "bittul," self-nullification) in the
"pure waters of knowledge," when we experience silence,
then our sleeve and arm and entire being cannot get wet, for
we are wetness itself.
To your second koan: "The entire bull crashes through
the window and the tail does not. Why?" Let me ask you,
"Why not? Why should the tail follow?"
A philosophy professor asked his graduate students to write
their dissertation responding to a one-word question: "Why?"
All the students, writing lengthy treatises, failed except
two. One student received an A for answering "Because."
The other received an A+ for replying "Why not?"
All our "why" questions originate from the fact
that we begin with defined principles that are "givens"
and therefore we ask "why?" However, from G-d's
perspective, one which is beyond all definitions and paradoxes,
any "why" question, and for that matter any question,
is absurd. Before G-d "why not?" is the more appropriate
The bull, our aggressive side, crashes through a window.
We, our logic, expect all of it to come crashing through,
including the tail. When the tail does not, we ask "why?"
My friend, I said, suspend your logic and be silent. And now,
The Frenchman jumped from his chair, "Of course! After
all these years of course, of course..." He continued
muttering to himself, punctuated by brief bursts of laughter
... "Why not? Why not? Why ... not?"
He sat still for some time. Then he looked at me in silence.
A silence that was louder than any words. And he said, "So
why did this G-d your G-d allow the Holocaust?"
He did not need to explain his segue.
I was quiet. Then I looked truth in the eye in my
eye and in his and I said to him, "You just struck
the greatest 'koan' of all. Having spent your entire lifetime
intrigued, searching for the mysteries of the 'koan,' you
are troubled by the ultimate 'koan,' the ultimate paradox."
He leaned closer to me, staring in my eyes, listening with
everything he had. "Why are you ready to accept the transcendental
experiences that result from the intrinsic paradoxes inherent
in all the 'koans,' yet unwilling to accept the paradox of
a good G-d allowing for evil? If G-d is Reality the
entirety of Reality is it not possible that G-d transcends
our limited definitions of good and evil? Namely, that G-d
is neither good nor evil (in ways that we define the terms),
neither 'wet' nor 'dry,' neither 'yes' nor 'no,' and we therefore
cannot ask 'why' or even 'why not.'
"The reason that you and I, and everyone, for
that matter agonize over this 'koan' is that this one
hits home...other 'koans' are theoretical exercises that are
both intriguing and beguiling and may even lead to some greater
truth. But at the end of the day, we live and sleep peacefully
with the knowledge that our logic does not comprehend the
sound of one hand clapping, or the dry hand in wet water.
However, we cannot sleep peacefully when we know and feel
the agony of innocent children being mercilessly gassed, their
ashes blown away in the wind, of helpless blood being absorbed
by the grasses of the Bavarian soil.
"This, my dear friend, is the ultimate 'koan.' And I
have no answer for it. None of us will ever have an answer.
Indeed, G-d Himself may never have an answer that we can understand,
and G-d, too, does not sleep peacefully. When the Romans were
putting to torturous death the greatest sages and saints of
their time, and doing so with unbridled barbarism, the celestial
angels cried to G-d: 'This is Torah and this is its reward?!'
G-d did not go into any theological explanations. He simply
said, 'Be silent...'"
Silence. The only response.
Julian tilted his head ever so slightly. He looked at me
for an eternity. And did not utter another word all evening.
And neither did I.
But before he went home he said to me at the door, "It
is so difficult. The pain is so deep."
Not until later did I learn that this French Jew and Holocaust
survivor is a Kohen, a Holy Kohen