Over the years, I have learned to love the magic words “I don’t know” on many levels.
It started with my high school entrance interview with Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, for MTA (Yeshiva University’s boys’ high school – aka TMSTAYUHSFB). Rabbi Cohen came to our elementary school, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and he interviewed us as a group, and then one by one.
Rabbi Cohen was very intimidating for me; I was a skinny 5-1 or 5-2 kid, and to me he looked like he was about 6-6. He had a long beard, black-framed glasses, and intense expression. His accent (Detroit?) and speech pattern were unusual for me, too, and I didn’t catch everything he said. It isn’t that he wasn’t kindly; I was just automatically intimidated. (Over the years since, I have come to respect and love him, and see him as a great role model.)
At one point during the 1-on-1, Rabbi Cohen began asking me questions. "What does X mean?" "Can you explain Y," that sort of thing. I did pretty well; thank Gd, I had a strong education and a good command of Hebrew, and knew what one would hope an eighth-grade Jewish boy would know.
Until he pulled out the stumper – “What is a Shifchah Charufah?”
I had no idea. I had heard the term somewhere, but I couldn’t remember what it meant. So I did the best I could – I knew shifchah was a maid, and charufah might be linked to חרפה, meaning embarrassment, so I tried, “An embarrassed maid.”
(The right answer: A חציה שפחה חציה בת חורין who is betrothed to an עבד עברי and then becomes involved with another man. Or, according to one view, a regular שפחה כנענית who is betrothed to an עבד עברי and then becomes involved with another man.
Yeah, I knew you knew that.)
That was when Rabbi Cohen taught me a lesson I haven’t forgotten in the 22 years since, and I hope never to forget: If you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not the end of the world, pal – just say it. I don’t know.
I think he knew that his question would stump me. I think he asked that question just to be able to teach me that lesson in humility and honesty… for which I am very grateful today, although I wasn’t at the time.
The story comes to mind now for two reasons:
1. We’ve been discussing the bizarre case of the Shifchah Charufah in Daf Yomi this week, and
I was reminded again yesterday of this important lesson.
2. It goes back to my post from yesterday, about the funeral of a young woman, as great a person as I know here in Allentown, who died of an extremely painful disease.
After the funeral I was approached by someone who asked me the age-old question, “What is it about? Why does this happen? Is it just that Gd wasn’t looking, was busy somewhere else?”
I do feel, often, like I should have an answer, like I’m expected to have the answer. "Rabbi, you've been at this for a dozen years; what can we say when something like this happens?" And I’m supposed to say something which will give all of this meaning.
But I’m no closer to understanding this than I was to knowing the meaning of shifchah charufah as a fourteen year old kid.
Oh, on a theoretical level I can talk about the gemara’s four approaches to suffering and Rav Soloveitchik’s “what now” instead of “why” question, but, ultimately, when dealing with מתו מוטל לפניו, an actual case, Rabbi Cohen was right: When you don’t know, say I don’t know.
It’s the right answer.