Thursday, August 28, 2008

From Shifchah Charufah to Theodicy, “I don’t know” is the right answer

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.

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  1. "becomes involved with anotehr man"


    I had Rabbi Cohen when I was in YU. Not my type of haskafa, but what an experience. :)

  2. Izgad -
    Thanks for catching my typo.

    Definitely an experience. There's a lot about that year that I am only beginning to understand.

  3. There is a small private matter that I was wondering if you could help me out with. I know that you are very busy.
    Could I contact you via email or phone?

  4. I like the idea that as a kid, you guessed. Shows a lot of spunk and ingenuity. Maybe you could have put a question mark at the end of what you said?

    I have a hard time with teaching kids there is a "right" way to do stuff. Some things are black and white, but there are a lot of greys, too.

  5. Good post. Good lesson, especially for those of us who would teach others (especially parents).

  6. Izgad-
    Feel free to email me, but I will be a bit crammed in schedule today and may not get back to you until after Shabbos.

    Why only for kids? Or is that just because they lack the self-confidence to understand it's all right to opt for the grey?


  7. I do feel, often, like I should have an answer, like I’m expected to have the answer... I’m supposed to say something which will give all of this meaning.

    Beyond the sadness and the loss of a "meaningless" death, the heaviness we feel is just that -- "meaningless" does not refer to a death without meaning, but rather, one whose meaning we humans cannot understand, or even contemplate, without coming up against our own discomforts and fears about death, and the ways those fears often disrupt our constant attempts to live a meaningful life.

    No one expects a rabbi to understand any better than the rest of us, just to offer a listening ear and some hope and encouragement that we fill our lives with meaning.

  8. ALN-
    Thanks; my feeling exactly, and a good way to explain "meaningless."

  9. Rabbi Lichtenstein has a great article about theodicy in "by his light" specifically with regards to the holocaust, specifically with regards to teaching about theodicy. Every time i read it it brings me great nechama. Brad

  10. AnonyBrad-
    Thanks; I'll have to look for it.