Life is full of paradoxes. For example, one of my favorite ones declares that the more a person knows about something the less he understands it. One would think just the opposite, that the more you know about a topic the more you would understand it. But often that’s not the case. The more you study a topic the more you realize there is to know, and the more questions you confront that escape simple answers.
A similar paradox that contains a guiding truth is that more information results in less understanding. This is a paradox because it’s counter-intuitive. We would think that more information generates deeper understanding. However, the opposite is often the case today. First, with the flood of information we have access to today we hardly have the time to properly collate and analyze it let alone make decisions based on it. We are all victims of information overload. Another problem with the information flood we all experience is that the information is often not vetted. Information is only helpful if it’s accurate. False information is worse than useless. It’s quite harmful.
Based on my historical research of leadership I believe there is what I refer to as the leadership paradox. In essence it claims that we should have more confidence in leaders who possess self-doubt. One would think that supremely confident leaders are the ones who can make the tough decision and see them through. They are the ones that will never falter and therefore are deserving of our confidence. Yet history has shown the opposite is true. Supremely confident leaders have made some very serious mistakes. After all they are so confident in themselves and in their decisions they often suffer from intellectual hubris. They dismiss information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs and they devalue other people’s opinions and wisdom. With this being the case they often lead their organizations in their own versions of the “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Leaders, however, who have a healthy dose of self-doubt, or what is referred to as intellectual humility are more open to new information and paying attention to the insights of other people. It’s not that they lack self-confidence. Such leaders are very self-confident and can make very difficult decisions. Rather they realize they don’t know everything and even what they do know is subject to change. They are therefore more likely to realize when it’s not such a good ide to charge down a valley unlike the British cavalry that is memorialized as doing so in the above-mentioned poem.
This Shabbat we will read Parshat Parah. This portion of the Torah relates to us the procedure for purifying a person through the parah adumah. Paradoxically, while the ashes of the heifer purify the impure, they spiritually defile the people involved in its preparation (other than the actual sprinkler). We would think that if these ashes purify people they certainly could not cause impurity. Perhaps though the Torah is teaching us a lesson. The Torah arguably is protecting against unwarranted hubris. People who are involved with purifying others might develop a certain arrogance. Therefore the Torah subjects them to minor spiritual impurity to hold their egos in check.
As we approach the holiday of Pesach we are all preparing for Sederim. The Seder as we know is full of paradoxes. It is an evening that we celebrate freedom while remembering hardship. It is an evening when we express our greatest freedom by emphasizing that we are now G-d’s people with all the now obligatory mitzvot that we agreed to observe. It is an evening when we celebrate our salvation and yet recall the need to be constantly vigil against our enemies.
Perhaps most importantly it is an evening when we educate our children and attempt to answer their many questions while at the same time being prepared to say we don’t have all the answers. We often think that the best way to engage our children is to answer their questions immediately and impress them with our knowledge. Paradoxically however for some of their questions respecting them with the response that we need to think about it more at length and in depth will engage them even more. They will be honored that we dignified their question with the admission that it’s such a good question that we have to give it some more thought. Additionally, when we do come later with an answer they will respect the answer more since they will appreciate that it’s the product of thoughtful research. Paradoxically then there are times when even at the Seder—less might be more.