My dear friend and esteemed member of our congregation, Professor Robert Aumann, told me a thoroughly wonderful story with a deep moral message. He had gone to visit the late, great Rabbi Gustman in the hospital where the rabbi was being treated for a sore on his foot. His physician was the famed Dr. Heiman, an exceptional person in his own right.
The doctor came into the room and told Rabbi Gustman that he did not know the cause of the sore on his leg. The rabbi responded: “I also do not know.” To which the old doctor said: “Honored Rabbi, do you mean to equate your not knowing to my not knowing?!” Not knowing the cause of the sore is certainly more troublesome and perhaps even more ominous to the physician than to the patient himself.
When Rashi, in his commentary to Talmud remarks, as he often does, that he does not know the meaning of a word or phrase in the text, is certainly in a different league and on a much higher level than our not knowing the correct interpretation or meaning of that word or phrase. So, it is obvious to all that there are many different levels of knowing, depending upon the intellectual level, previous knowledge, experience and common sense of different individuals.
Since, as Rashba points out: ” The ultimate goal of all knowledge is to make one realize that one really does not know,” it is important for us to realize that there are different levels of knowledge and to be able to discern them and to cope with the resulting uncertainties.
We are certainly living through a period of intense uncertainty. The world seems to be falling apart around us. Europe was certainly a mess before the Brexit vote and it now seems to be in an even greater mess. The Middle East is in constant turmoil and the tentacles of Islamic extremism and terrorism extend over the entire globe.
No one seems to have any good answers or practical solutions to these uncertainties and instabilities. To me, the fact that almost all of the world's leaders have no clue as to how to deal with these issues and problems is far more troubling than the fact that I can admit that I do not know what the answer should be. All of the political rhetoric, empty campaign promises and personal blustering only serve to emphasize the uncertainties of our time and the dangers that we face.
We like to believe that we can solve all problems….and more so, that all problems are truly capable of human solution. The fact that all of history belies that belief makes little impression upon us. The world is ours to conquer and conquer it we shall, no matter what the cost involved. No one likes to hear the words “I do not know” from the lips of government leaders, physicians, savants and other worthies. We all realize that their not knowing is different from ours, but, at the end of the day, it is still an unknown.
The basis of life is uncertainty. We can plan for the future, as that is our nature, but that future rarely, if ever, conforms to our plans. It is flexibility, and the ability to adapt, that is a far more valuable asset to individuals and nations than certainties and inflexible ideological beliefs.
People may expect that their leaders, spiritual and temporal, know everything and have an answer for all difficulties and issues. The person who pretends to be omniscient will eventually pay a great price for that type of arrogance and hubris. It is a great temptation to believe that one can really know all of the answers for all of the problems for all of the people.
This temptation is even greater for people of high intellect and great knowledge. To warn us of this innate danger, Rashi, one of the greatest scholars of all time, sprinkles into his holy words of commentary the phrase; “I do not know what this means.” He is warning us of the pitfalls of being a know-it-all regarding one's self and the lives of others as well.
The prophet Elisha tells his servant Gaichazi that he does not know why the woman of Shunam is so desperately anxious to see him. How can a prophet of God not know? Yet even prophets are human and therefore full knowledge is not always present in life, no matter what level one may be at.