Both a family friend from much earlier and one of my two mentors when I first began my journey to become a rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger, of blessed memory, was, in my day, the most beloved rabbi in my hometown of Denver in the 1950s. With a brilliant and decisive mind, what really struck people was his humility and openness. He taught me to respond to most questions with, “I don’t know. Let’s look into this together”. When after many years of internal back and forth, I finally decided to pursue smicha, I went to his house to ask his advice.
He looked me in the eye for a couple minutes and then he said, “Zeitlin, the one luxury I never afforded myself has been Absolute Certainty. About anything.” After that he asked about my parents, with whom he and his Rebbetzin, Ida, were close friends, indicating that he gave me the advice he thought I needed.
As it turns out, that piece of rabbinic wisdom is something I think about every single day, as I have since that day so long ago.
One of the requirements and frequent functions of an orthodox rabbi is to answer halachic questions. Most of our early training is mastering the reasoning techniques presented in the Talmud. And one of the first things that should strike anyone after even a brief glance at a daf Gemara (a page of Talmud) is that brilliant, highly trained experts, often disagree. There is rarely one “right” answer to just about any question. Of course, as a practical matter, both the rabbis in those days and in ours need to reach a practical, ad hoc solution. But no one ever thought, or ever should think that they are declaring eternal, indisputable TRUTH. Disputes, after all, are the very warp into which the weave of Oral Torah is woven.
The Ishbitz Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Leiner 1801-54), whose thought has very much captured my heart and mind of late, writes in Mei HaShiloach on this week’s parsha, Korach, that Korach’s rebellion, a major challenge to the authority of both Moses and Aaron, was based on, of all things, the mitzva of Tzitzit, a special garment worn daily, distinguished by strings tied to each of the four corners. One of these strings at each corner is mandated to be a specific shade of blue called techelet, and we’re instructed (both in the mitzva, commandment, itself to wear tzitizt, and also to determine when we can begin our morning prayers (Talmud Bavli Berachot 1:2) to meditate on the difference between this unique color and the white of the garment itself, or perhaps between it and dark green. This mitzva had just been presented at the very end of the previous parsha, Selach and Korach immediately asks a question, what might well be an impertinent question–usually the garment itself is white, but what if the entire garment itself was dyed techelet? Would it require the added string(s) of techelet?
Less intersted in resolving that ancient dispute, and also not really interested in describing the political feud and it’s background, the Mei HaShiloach takes a different tack and discusses Techelet itself. He tells us that this color, seen kabbalistically/spiritually, represents the quality of Yirah, usually badly translated as fear (as in “fear of God”). In addition to that, we learn that the word, taken literally from its root, R-A-E, is based on seeing, seeing deeply and truly. (The concept of fear enters as a result of seeing God’s presence everywhere and in everything. At least superficially admitting our own imperfection, we realize that we’re certainly going to “sin”, at the very least, when we don’t measure up to The Creator’s expectations for us. As we turn our focus in that direction, and notice that we’re actually focusing our attention on ourselves and no longer on God!, we put ourselves deeper and deeper into the vicious cycle of guilt and ever-worse decisions!)
However, if we return our focus, our Yirah to God, we’re quickly faced with an apparent contradiction that even when we sin, even egregiously, even when we seriously hurt ourselves and/or others, God, allowing it, gives at least his implied consent. Which brings us to the “unthinkable” idea that all the evil that exists in this world is also part of God’s Will, Ratzon Hashem.
The key to this highly distressing contradiction is the word “Unthinkable”. But that word is also the key to understanding all these seeming dilemmas. Perhaps among the most challenging difficulties is to face the insult to our egos, that we are Man, not God. As Issaiah teaches (55:8), Ki Lo Machshavotei Machshavoteychem, “My Thoughts are not your thoughts”, V’Lo Darcheychem Daracei, “Nor are you ways My Ways”. God reveals to humanity only a part of His Divine Wisdom, His Divine Will. (And what He reveals to each individual is, necessarily, much less to what He Reveals to all humanity.) And all of this resides in God’s Wisdom and Purpose, not in our curiosity nor in our arrogance.
Thus it’s not “mere” humility to say, “I don’t know”, but rather a statement of one of the highest and most sublime truths. In fact, it’s certainly one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual heights a person can reach to begin to be even slightly aware of the magnitude of God’s Wisdom and Will and how unapproachable on any real level it is to us.
Immediately after offering our thanks and gratitude to The Creator every morning when we say, “Modeh/ah Ani L’fanecha” we then remind ourselves that Reishit Chachma Yirat Hashem, the beginning of wisdom is awareness of God’s presence, reminding us that only God is God, and we’re not. And that way we begin our day telling the truth to ourselves of who we are. A very good beginning, if you ask me.