INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE BOX

April 18th, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

Henry Kissinger once famously said, “Whenever you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn’t think about, that doesn’t exist.”

With Kissinger’s recent passing at the advanced age of 100, much has been written about the legacy of the twentieth century’s greatest statesman, and particularly how he mastered the art of thinking outside the box, while respecting the box itself as the foundational framework of diplomacy.

In the early 1970s, amid a sharply divided Cold War world, Kissinger – then National Security Advisor in President Nixon’s administration – orchestrated a groundbreaking diplomatic maneuver that would reshape global politics: the opening of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Kissinger’s approach was innovative yet deeply grounded in existing diplomatic structures. His secret 1971 trip to Beijing, facilitated through discreet communications and intermediaries, exemplified his belief in the power of traditional diplomacy, creatively applied. By leveraging established channels in unconventional ways, Kissinger not only bridged a vast ideological divide but also set the stage for a new era in international relations.

This bold initiative showed that although the “box” – namely: the existing structures of international diplomacy – provides necessary stability and continuity, stepping just beyond its traditional bounds can lead to transformative outcomes. Kissinger’s diplomatic accomplishment showed the value of maintaining a delicate balance between innovation and tradition, a lesson that remains pertinent as we navigate today’s complex global landscape.

And considering Kissinger’s Orthodox Jewish roots, perhaps it is not such a surprise that he intuitively understood this concept – after all, he grew up with Pesach (Passover) and Seder night. The idea of thinking outside the box while respecting the box itself was deeply embedded in his Jewish DNA.

Just as Kissinger navigated the complexities of international diplomacy, so too does the Pesach Seder navigate the balance between rigid structure and the necessity for creative engagement. Each year, as families worldwide prepare for Pesach, they revisit the ancient traditions and rituals that define this pivotal Jewish holiday.

Central to the festival’s observance is the Seder, a ceremonial dinner on the first night of the festival, and outside Israel on the second night as well. The theme of the Seder is retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. However, despite the ritual’s deeply structured nature, the Seder is ripe for incorporating spontaneity and creativity.

A 2017 study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management highlights a paradox that transcends cultural and religious boundaries: structure, while simplifying comprehension and organization of our surroundings, can significantly stifle creativity. The research, which was led by doctoral candidate Yeun Joon Kim and Professor Chen-Bo Zhong, drew on several experiments, including one involving LEGO bricks.

It turned out that participants asked to assemble a model from LEGO bricks sorted by color and shape exhibited noticeably less creativity than those who were given a box of randomly assorted bricks. The findings, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, suggest that over-structuring and over-planning can dampen the innovative spirit.

The Seder is intricately designed with a series of rituals and readings from the Haggadah – the text that guides the evening’s proceedings. Steeped in structure—indeed, the Hebrew word “Seder” means “order—at first glance it would appear that this deliberate organization is critical, ensuring that the multifaceted story of the Exodus is presented in a comprehensive and accurate manner, allowing each participant to follow the chronological progression from slavery to freedom in a well-honed and immutable framework.

But this first impression is wrong. Despite its structure, the Seder is uniquely conducive to creativity and personal expression. The readings from the Haggadah, while fixed, are not just about droning on a passive version of ancient events. Instead, the Haggadah’s readings serve as a springboard for discussion, questioning, and exploration.

The narrative is crafted not just to be told, but to be engaged with; it calls for each participant to delve into the meanings, themes, and moral questions inherent in the ancient story. This engagement is vital to the educational mission of the Seder, which aims not only to transmit historical knowledge but to instill a deeper understanding and personal connection to the events of the Exodus.

Besides, although the Haggadah provides a set script, it is replete with obvious cues for personal input and interpretive freedom. It incorporates various symbols and rituals—like the eating of bitter herbs or the spilling of wine—which are designed to evoke sensory responses and emotional reactions that transcend mere verbal storytelling. These elements are invitations for participants to reflect on the harshness of slavery and the sweetness of liberation, integrating their own narratives with the ancient text.

The Seder’s structure also includes several built-in moments specifically intended to provoke discussion and participation, such as the asking of the Four Questions. Traditionally posed by the youngest at the table, these questions about why this night differs from all other nights shouldn’t just prompt answers, but a lively exchange of ideas and interpretations – and, more importantly: even more questions. The Seder is not a monolith; it values the insights and curiosities of all its participants, regardless of age or scholarly background.

In essence, the Seder exemplifies a dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation, much like Henry Kissinger’s approach to diplomacy. While it adheres to a predetermined order that ensures the story of the Exodus is told with fidelity and depth, it simultaneously encourages a creative engagement that makes each Seder a unique and deeply personal experience.

This blend of structure and spontaneity not only enriches the ritual itself but also reinforces its enduring relevance, inviting each generation to find its own meaning and message in the ancient tale of liberation. In remembering Kissinger’s legacy, we are reminded of the power of balancing respect for tradition with the courage to innovate—a principle that continues to resonate both at the Seder table and, hopefully, in the broader world. This principle reminds us that in the interstices of rigid structures lie the opportunities for transformative creativity and enduring change.

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